HCA ( HCA) continues to see its results hurt by patients who do not pay.

To be fair, the giant hospital chain did manage to deliver on lowered expectations for the third quarter. The company increased revenue by 4% to $6.03 billion and even topped the new consensus profit estimate by a penny with earnings of 62 cents a share. Meanwhile, net income actually jumped 23% to $280 million during the period.

Still, things could have been better. Overall, same-facility admissions slipped 0.7% from a year ago, when hurricanes hurt business as well, even as uninsured admissions rocketed by a startling 15%. All told, uninsured patients accounted for 5.6% of total same-facility admissions and 22% of same-facility emergency room visits during the latest quarter.

Even so, HCA saw its provision for doubtful accounts drop from 11.9% to 10.3% of revenue during the period. However, after adjusting for new discounts given to the uninsured, which lower revenue upfront, the company's bad debt ratio would have been a much-higher 13.7% instead.

Going forward, HCA has pledged to deliver full-year earnings of between $3.10 and $3.20 a share, including a slew of special items that adds 23 cents to the bottom line. Analysts were expecting 2005 profits of $3.01 a share without that extra help.

For 2006, the story looks somewhat similar. HCA expects to deliver earnings of between $3.25 and $3.45, once again with help from one-time items. Wall Street was looking for the company to at least beat the bottom of that range, with profits of $3.29 a share already.

Moreover, HCA has warned that factors outside its own control -- like those hurting the company right now -- could render the company unable to meet even those future targets. It highlighted patient volumes, uninsured admissions and hurricane threats as ongoing challenges.

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