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Insurer UnitedHealth's profit rises 15 percent

UnitedHealth Group's (UNH) fourth-quarter earnings jumped 15 percent and topped expectations, as the nation's largest health insurer booked a sizeable gain from a business that doesn't sell insurance.

The Minnetonka, Minn., company's shares climbed 4 percent in early premarket trading Thursday after it released results.

UnitedHealth said operating earnings for its Optum segment jumped 43 percent to $655 million in the quarter. Optum provides information technology and data services and pharmacy benefits management, and UnitedHealth executives frequently tout its growth prospects to analysts.

Revenue from the segment climbed 36 percent in the quarter.

Overall, UnitedHealth earned $1.43 billion, or $1.41 per share, in the three months that ended December 31. That's up from $1.24 billion, or $1.20 per share, in the 2012 quarter. Total revenue climbed 8.2 percent to $31.12 billion.

Analysts expected, on average, earnings of $1.40 per share on $31.15 billion in revenue, according to FactSet.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. is the first insurer to report earnings every quarter. Many see it as a bellwether for other insurers.

The insurer's total enrollment climbed 11 percent to 45.4 million people compared to the end of 2012. That was helped by the start of a contract to cover military members and their families through the government's Tricare program.

UnitedHealth also said Thursday that it still expects 2014 earnings to range between $5.40 and $5.60 per share on revenue of $128 billion to $129 billion, the same forecast it announced last month before its annual investor meeting.

Analysts expect, on average, earnings of $5.64 per share on $130.59 billion in revenue.

UnitedHealth shares jumped $3.04, or 4.1 percent, to $77.90 in premarket trading about 2 1/2 hours before the market open. The stock jumped nearly 39 percent last year to close 2013 at $75.30 after setting several all-time high prices that the insurer has already topped in the new year.

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