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UnitedHealth boosts 2019 profit view on strength in insurance, pharmacy benefits

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(Reuters) – UnitedHealth Group Inc <UNH.N> beat estimates for quarterly profit and raised its 2019 earnings forecast on Thursday, buoyed by strength in the largest U.S. health insurer’s pharmacy benefits management and insurance businesses.

The company is the first U.S. health insurer to report quarterly results after the Trump administration last week nixed a proposal that would have required health insurers to pass billions of dollars in rebates they receive from drugmakers to Medicare patients.

The decision removed an overhang on health insurer stocks, but uncertainty in the industry persists as rising healthcare costs take the centre stage in debates ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Democratic candidates are divided on the issue of health insurance, with some proposing a complete ban on private health insurance in favour of a government-run Medicare-for-All plan, and others outlining less disruptive alternatives.

“The focus for the group remains more on the Medicare-for-All political overhang than fundamentals, but sentiment is more stable than the first-quarter sell-off,” Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel said.

“Overall this is a welcome, clean beat and raise to kick off earnings season, and we would expect stock to be up modestly.”

Shares of the industry bellwether rose 1.7% to $271.15 before the bell on Thursday.

Sales in UnitedHealth’s main business of selling health insurance plans rose nearly 6% to $48.59 billion (£38.99 billion) in the second quarter.

Revenue from the Optum unit, which manages prescription drug benefits and offers healthcare data analytics services, rose 13.4% to $28.03 billion.

The company’s medical care ratio, or the percentage of premiums paid out for medical services, worsened to 83.1%, from 81.9% a year earlier. Analysts had expected 83%.

UnitedHealth raised its full-year adjusted earnings forecast to between $14.70 and $14.90 per share, from an earlier forecast of between $14.50 and $14.75 per share.

Net earnings attributable to shareholders rose 12.7% to $3.29 billion, or $3.42 per share, in the three months ended June 30.

Excluding items, UnitedHealth earned $3.60 per share, beating the average analyst estimate of $3.45, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Total revenue rose 8% to $60.60 billion, above estimates of $60.55 billion.

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

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