Aetna

(AET)

swung to a profit in the latest quarter and said operating earnings also rose thanks to lower medical costs and higher premiums. The company beat the consensus analyst estimate by 48 cents.

The HMO said first-quarter operating earnings, which exclude net realized capital gains, were $2.03 a share, compared with operating earnings of 44 cents a share. The latest quarter also included a gain of 69 cents a share for prior-period medical cost estimates. Backing that out, the company earned $1.34 a share; analysts had been predicting earnings of 86 cents a share, on that basis.

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On the bottom line, the company earned of $330 million, or $2.12 a share, in this year's quarter compared with a loss of $2.83 billion, or $19 a share, a year earlier. Revenue slipped to $4.5 billion from $5.3 billion.

The company said the results reflect a sharp deceleration in the rate of medical cost increases, successful efforts to prune its membership and higher sales activity. Within its healthcare segment, operating earnings were $293.3 million in the latest quarter, compared with 2002 operating earnings of $44.7 million