WellPoint, the nation's largest publicly traded health insurance provider by enrollment and operator of Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in more than a dozen states, continued its strong run of late this week, moving to a 52-week high of more than $79 a share on the strength of impressive earnings and overall strength of the insurance sector.
On April 27, Indianapolis-based WellPoint (NYSE: WLP) topped analysts' estimates with a first-quarter profit of $927 million, or $2.44 a share, on sales of $14.9 billion. Analysts were looking for a profit of $1.89 a share on sales of $14.65 billion.
WellPoint, along with other top-tier insurers including UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH), Humana (NYSE: HUM) and Cigna (NYSE: CI) all reported better-than-expected earnings this quarter, mainly because people are going to the doctor less than they have in the past for a variety of reasons including the rising costs of deductibles, improved general health and bad weather and storms in certain parts of the country that dissuades older consumers from making the trip out to the doctor's office unless it's absolutely necessary.
According to Morningstar, WellPoint is best positioned of all the health insurance companies to deliver strong returns for investors. In fact, this last quarter WellPoint paid out a 25-cent-a-share cash dividend to investors (total cost of $93 million) and spent $700 of its own cash to buy back shares.
"WellPoint's unmatched regional scale provides the company with significant cost advantages and reliable free cash flows," Morningstar analyst Matthew Coffina wrote in a research note. "With the health reform debate concluded and underwriting results stabilizing, we are enthusiastic about WellPoint's long-run prospects."
Coffina's not alone.
Eighteen of the 26 analysts tracking the stock maintain either a "buy" or "strong buy" recommendation on the stock even though it's up more than 48% for the year and trading at a 52-week high.
WellPoint is particularly attractive, analysts say, because it's the nation's largest MCO by medical membership, and the regional concentration of its 14 Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans gives it a particularly strong bargaining position with providers.
"Health-care spending growth has consistently outpaced nominal gross domestic product growth during the last 50 years," Coffina added. "We are raising our fair value estimate for WellPoint to $100 from $95 after incorporating the expected benefit of new members after 2014 related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."
WellPoint shares fell to a 52-week low of $46.52 a share in July.