Health Management Associates ( HMA) is looking a little peaked. The rural hospital chain, long known for its robust growth rate, fell short of quarterly expectations Tuesday due to sluggish patient admissions. First-quarter revenue grew 8.7% to $822 million but came in shy of the $841 million consensus estimate. Excluding a boost from hurricane insurance, the company's first-quarter profits of 32 cents a share missed the mark as well. HMA's stock slipped 1.5% to $23.38 on the quarterly update. Still, at least one industry expert had expected even worse. Peter Young, a business consultant at HealthCare Strategic Issues, said that HMA has been hit particularly hard by the lingering effects of multiple hurricanes in its home base of Florida. He had assumed that HMA could wind up suffering more than most in the battered hospital sector. "HMA's admission trends reflect both the hospital business environment -- which, by and large, has demonstrated sluggish volumes -- and, more specifically for HMA, a significant decline in volumes related to Florida," Young said. "This leads to an important question about the sustainability of revenue going forward." HMA managed to grow same-store revenue -- for the 65th quarter in a row -- despite a 2.6% drop in same-store admissions. The company pointed to last year's hurricanes as a reason for weakness and warned of ongoing storm-related challenges "through the balance of fiscal 2005." During the latest quarter, however, a big insurance payment helped ease the pain. Banc of America analyst Gary Taylor estimates that the $5.1 million payment added 2 cents to HMA's earnings and, thus, allowed the company to meet Wall Street expectations. Taylor pointed to HMA's cash flow from operations, up 66% to $155 million, as a bright spot for the quarter. In contrast, net income climbed by only 10.4% to $78.8 million. But Taylor said "it's hard to imagine" how HMA's cash flow growth will continue to significantly outdistance its operating results in the future.