The health care sector has pumped out stronger quarters.

As expected, hospital giant HCA ( HCA) posted lower profits due to a surge in bad-debt expense. But two big drugmakers saw earnings fall as well. Schering-Plough ( SGP) actually swung to an unexpected loss, delivering its third quarterly earnings miss in a row. Meanwhile, Merck ( MRK) posted a 5.3% profit decline -- but still topped the consensus by a penny -- after shedding its lucrative Medco ( MHS) division.

Even WellPoint ( WLP), which toppled first-quarter estimates, stirred some concern on Wall Street. The California insurer reported a quarterly profit of $1.85 per share that beat the consensus estimate by 27 cents. But Goldman Sachs analyst Matthew Borsch quickly pointed out that underwriting margin gains -- responsible for much of the upside -- could prove unsustainable going forward.

"Earnings quality was not as good as the earnings quantity," wrote Borsch, who currently has no rating on WellPoint's stock. "We are less bullish on WellPoint's first-quarter results than the huge EPS upside would suggest we should be."

The market celebrated anyway. Shares of WellPoint jumped 2.6% to $115.75 early Thursday morning.

Vital Signs

Following a profit warning last week, HCA posted first-quarter earnings of 69 cents a share, falling a penny shy of the latest consensus estimate. The company, which ranks as the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country, blamed a spike in bad debt provisions -- which shaved 26 cents from first-quarter earnings -- for the shortfall.

"Aside from the significant increases in uninsured-patient volumes and bad debts, results for the quarter were quite positive," stated HCA CEO Jack Bovender. "We were particularly pleased with the improved volume trends in both our inpatient and outpatient services. ... Long term, we remain confident that our existing assets, market locations and our reinvestment strategy will produce solid returns for our shareholders."

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