By Manojna Maddipatla
(Reuters) - UnitedHealth Group Inc, the largest U.S. health insurer, reported a better-than-expected fourth-quarter profit on Wednesday, and said it expects strong sales of its government health plans this year.
The company also reported solid sales growth in its pharmacy benefits business.
UnitedHealth expects to enroll 700,000 more people in its Medicare Advantage plans in 2020, Chief Executive Officer David Wichmann said on a call to discuss the quarterly results. That was at the upper end of the Medicare Advantage forecast the company provided at its investor conference in December.
The plans provide health benefits to older Americans and the disabled.
Shares of UnitedHealth, the first major U.S. insurer to report earnings this season, were up more than 2% at $294.65, lifting shares of rivals Anthem Inc, Humana Inc and Cigna Corp by about 1%.
Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel said the stock was likely reacting to the solid Medicare Advantage enrollment forecast.
Newshel also cited the industry bellwether's comments regarding limited cost impact from the current flu season, which picked up pace in the last few weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wednesday's share rise comes on the back of gains in insurer shares over the last two months as fears eased that the 2020 presidential election would lead to a major overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.
UnitedHealth affirmed its full-year forecast for 2020 adjusted earnings of $16.25 to $16.55 per share, with a midpoint a bit below analysts' average estimates of $16.46, according to Refinitiv data.
Total revenue rose 4.3% to $60.90 billion, just shy of Wall Street expectations of $61.04 billion.
Sales of the company's core business selling health insurance plans rose 4.4% to $48.25 billion.
Revenue from the Optum unit, which manages drug benefits and offers healthcare data analytics services, rose about 8% to $29.8 billion.
UnitedHealth has bolstered its Optum business with a string of small acquisitions, the latest a $300 million purchase of Diplomat Pharmacy.
On an adjusted basis, the company earned $3.90 per share, exceeding analyst estimates of $3.78.
(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr and Bill Berkrot)