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UPDATE 3-Humana outlines 2018 growth challenges, shares fall

(Adds details from call, recasts to focus outlook)

Nov 8 (Reuters) - Health insurer Humana Inc on Wednesday said its 2018 profit growth would be "a bit below" 11 percent as the specialist in Medicare healthcare for the elderly and disabled faces off against challenges such as the reinstatement of a 3 percent industry-wide health insurance tax.

Humana shares fell 3 percent to $249.33 as the company's executives discussed the preliminary 2018 outlook during a conference call on its third-quarter profit, which was above Wall Street expectations.

The Louisville, Kentucky, company on Wednesday also said it cut its workforce by about 2,700 employees or 5.7 percent as it began voluntary early retirement and workforce reduction programs in the third quarter.

Humana Chief Financial Officer Brian Kane said that the reinstatement next year of the health insurance tax, part of the Obamacare health reform law that is currently on hiatus, as well as the costs of exiting the Obamacare individual market, could hurt earnings by 30 cents per share. The company also flagged a membership drop in its Medicare prescription drug plan of a few hundred thousand people.

Like rivals such as Aetna Inc, Humana scaled back individual government-subsidized health plans created by President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, after losing money on the plans. Humana said it is now profitable there and that third-quarter medical costs were below expectations.

Kane said that individual enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans, an alternative to the standard fee-for-service Medicare, should increase by 150,000 to 180,000 members next year.

Kane also said the insurer plans to grow earnings through product initiatives and capital deployment like mergers and acquisitions and share buybacks. Humana's strategic moves come after its plan to be purchased by Aetna was thwarted by antitrust regulators last year.

Wall Street analysts expect 2018 earnings of $12.16 per share, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Humana raised its forecast for 2017 adjusted earnings to about $11.60 per share from $11.50. It said individual Medicare Advantage membership reached 2.85 million by the end of September, up 1 percent from a year ago.

Humana's consolidated benefit ratio - the percentage of premiums spent on claims - rose slightly to 82.1 percent from 81.5 percent a year ago.

Humana's net profit rose 11 percent to $499 million or $3.44 per share in the quarter ended Sept. 30. Excluding one-time items, the company earned $3.39 per share, topping analysts' average estimate of $3.27, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue fell 3 percent to $13.28 billion. (Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar and Phil Berlowitz)