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WellPoint Warns on 2006

WellPoint (WLP) has just hiccupped.

The giant health insurer -- which last year swallowed one of its biggest competitors whole -- has finally delivered some news that could prove difficult to digest. After the market closed on Tuesday, the company published 2006 guidance that fell short of Wall Street expectations.

Excluding special items, WellPoint plans to deliver earnings of $4.69 a share next year. Analysts, on average, were expecting $4.76 instead.

The company's stock, hovering near an all-time ahead of that update, tumbled 3.4% to $76.40 following the news.

For its part, WellPoint portrayed its outlook as strong. However, the company did say that it has completed a new strategic plan that addresses the challenges -- as well as the opportunities -- that lie ahead.

"The growth model we have developed is based on our proven ability to increase our membership in a disciplined manner while continually reducing our [selling, general and administrative] cost ratio and effectively using our cash flow," stated WellPoint CFO David Colby.

WellPoint expects to grow its enrollment by 3% -- and its revenue by a much stronger 11% -- in the coming year. It also plans to keep cutting its overhead costs so that it can grow earnings, as promised, by 15% a year.

Still, in its published outlook, WellPoint spent almost as much time celebrating the recent past -- when it became the largest health insurer in the country -- as it did looking ahead.

"Looking back, 2005 was a truly outstanding year for the company," CEO Larry Glasscock said. "In addition to successfully integrating Anthem and WellPoint, we also completed several significant milestones that helped to strongly position the company for continued success in the coming years."

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