Meet the new corporate earnings excuse: Obamacare

Obamacare is the new buzzword in first-quarter corporate results, with dozens of businesses either blaming the law for raising costs or, in more hopeful terms, citing it as an opportunity to boost revenues.

As of early Friday, the Affordable Care Act has been mentioned in 31 first-quarter earnings calls hosted by companies listed in the Standard & Poor's 500, financial research firm FactSet told CBS MoneyWatch. That's about 7 percent of all the companies listed in the index that had reported results in the latest quarter.

Roughly half of those companies are in the health care industry, such as UnitedHealth Group (UNH), which last month said first-quarter profits were crimped partly due to Obamacare. But others outside the health care sector blamed the law for boosting costs and overhead, ranging from UPS (UPS) to Dollar General (DG).

For some companies, by contrast, Obamacare is a business opportunity. For instance, benefits outsourcing company Paychex (PAYX) said it expects clients to increasingly rely on its services for help in complying with the law.

"You'll see more of that this year and because that's when it's really starting to hit them," chief executive Martin Mucci said on a March conference call to discuss his company's fiscal third-quarter results. "So we're expecting some -- certainly some support from that, that clients will just find this just too confusing and will look for outsourcer help."

While FactSet didn't break down how the 31 companies characterized the impact of Obamacare, some companies cited the law as driving up costs and impacting profits.

UnitedHealth, one of the country's biggest insurers, said last month the ACA cut its first-quarter per-share earnings by more than 35 cents and warned that the law will lower full-year profits by about $1.50 per share.

"The ACA's impacts on 2014 have been immediate and significant," UnitedHealth chief executive Stephen Hemsley said on an investor conference call.

Still, some companies, such as those selling medical equipment, may find the impact fleeting, Morningstar analyst Daniel Holland told USA Today. The law will likely increase demand for health care services, which which will drive up sales for businesses providing equipment and services.

Already, Obamacare is lifting consumer spending, thanks to the roughly 8 million Americans who signed up for health care plans through federal and state exchanges. Spending on health care jumped almost 10 percent in the first three months of 2014, adding $43.3 billion in spending to the U.S. economy.

Only 13.4 percent of American adults remained uninsured in April, Gallup said on Monday. That's the lowest monthly rate since the polling firm started tracking the issue in 2008.

  • Aimee Picchi

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