UPDATE 2-Aetna gives bullish outlook as profit beats estimates

* Earnings of $1.55 per share beat analysts' estimate of $1.34

Outlook for 2012 now $5.10 per share

Oct 25 (Reuters) - Aetna Inc. reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit on Thursday, saying it had reached its 2012 membership goal ahead of schedule, held down costs with doctors and benefited from higher medical insurance premiums.

The third-largest U.S. health insurer also boosted its 2012 outlook on Thursday to the top end of its previous forecast range of $5.00 to $5.10 a share.

Beyond 2012, Aetna Chief Financial Officer Joseph Zubretsky said in a statement that he expected further increases.

``Our core businesses, supplemented by emerging businesses growth and effective capital deployment, position Aetna for growth,'' he said.

He said the company had worked with providers to keep costs down. In addition, a voluntary early retirement program announced in 2011 helped to reduce expenses. Aetna's percentage of premiums paid for medical expenses was 80.7 percent in the third quarter, up from 78.9 percent a year earlier.

Some of the quarterly costs stemmed from Aetna's plans to increase its share of the fast-growing, U.S. government-backed Medicare and Medicaid programs. In August, it announced a deal to buy Coventry Health Care Inc for $5.6 billion.

Aetna said its third-quarter profit had risen to $499.2 million, or $1.47 per share, from $490.4 million, or $1.30 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding tax benefits and other special items, earnings rose to $1.55 per share from $1.40. That was ahead of the analysts' average estimate of $1.34, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S

Last week, larger competitor UnitedHealth Group Inc also reported earnings above Wall Street expectations.

Aetna's revenue increased to $8.9 billion from $8.4 billion, in line with expectations. The company attributed the rise to higher insurance premiums in its commercial, Medicare and Medicaid businesses.

Aetna added 149,000 new medical members during the quarter to reach its full-year goal of 18.2 million.