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A blowout quarter for the insurance industry looked even better Wednesday after



reported sharply higher earnings and guided full-year results way above the consensus.

Cigna, whose report followed similarly bullish news Tuesday from



, earned $436 million, or $3.28 a share, in the quarter, compared with $68 million, or 48 cents a share, last year.

Adjusted for items, Cigna earned $2.24 a share from operations in the latest quarter, more than 70 cents better than expected. For all of 2005, Cigna expects to earn $6.40 to $6.90 a share from operations, almost a dollar better than guidance issued as recently as February.

The impressive first-quarter results came despite slight declines in revenue and membership, as Cigna's aftertax margin surged to 7.2% from 5.8% because of reductions to prior-period medical expense estimates. The performance was crucial for a company that two-and-a-half-years ago saw 40% of its market capitalization

wiped out in one day because of botched expense hedging.

"Cigna's strong capabilities in medical management and consumer-focused benefits programs are being well-received in the marketplace," the company said. "We continue to strengthen our position as an industry leader in helping our members stay healthy and productive while helping employers control their benefits costs."

Cigna expects to earn $1.35 to $1.55 a share on an adjusted basis in the current quarter. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were expecting earnings of $1.51 a share. The stock added $3.55, or 3.8%, to $98 in premarket Instinet trading.