law@ (Adds details of tax benefit, medical costs)
Jan 16 (Reuters) - UnitedHealth Group Inc on Tuesday raised its outlook for 2018 earnings per share by more than 16 percent due to the U.S. corporate tax cut and said it will speed up technology investments that aim to cut customer costs.
UnitedHealth is the largest U.S. health insurer and the first to report fourth-quarter earnings, which rose to $2.59 per share excluding one-time gains, beating analysts' expectations of $2.51 per share.
UnitedHealth shares jumped 2.4 percent to $234.27, reaching a new high. Shares in rival Anthem Inc rose 1.2 percent to $242.82, also a high, and Cigna Corp gained 1 percent to $215.76.
Health insurer shares have risen this year as the growth in medical services costs has slowed, helping to fuel industry profits. UnitedHealth said its 2017 growth rate in those costs was 5.5 percent, at the low end of its forecast, and projected growth of 6 percent in 2018.
A planned deal for CVS Health Corp to buy insurer Aetna Inc has helped buoy other insurer stocks as investors consider the potential for healthcare consolidation across sectors.
Antitrust regulators shot down deals between Aetna and Humana Inc and Cigna and Anthem two years ago, saying they would raise prices for insurance.
UnitedHealth Chief Executive Officer David Wichmann said the company is looking at the changes to individual health insurance presented by Republican U.S. President Donald Trump, including pushing new association health plans that allow individuals to band together to buy insurance outside of Obamacare regulations.
$1.7 BLN TAX BILL BENEFIT
The biggest lift to its bottom line this year is a $1.7 billion benefit in earnings and cash flow from the $1.5 trillion tax bill that Trump signed into law last month. That is after a $400 million to $500 million reduction in premium revenue to comply with former President Barack Obama's healthcare law - less than half of which is to comply with a minimum ratio for profits versus premiums collected.
It also excludes $200 million to $300 million it will spend on developing systems to cut consumer costs such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, individual health records, and digital health, Wichmann said on a conference call with investors.
The company now forecasts 2018 full-year net earnings per share between $11.65 and $11.95, up from its prior forecast of $10.00 to $10.30.
Excluding items, it sees 2018 earnings of $12.30 to $12.60 per share, versus its previous outlook of $10.55 to $10.85. (Reporting by Divya Grover in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Arun Koyyur, Bill Trott and Jeffrey Benkoe)