With its immune system weakened and no miracle cure in sight, Health Management Associates ( HMA) has finally decided to stop gobbling up other hospitals and tend to the ones it has. The rural hospital chain on Monday lowered its expectations for the current year and signaled that acquisitions, once a source of explosive growth, will lend no help to the company right now. The company has instead laid out plans to scale back acquisitions -- and "reinforce its priority of optimizing the performance of its existing hospitals" -- as weak volumes and rising bad-debt expense continue to eat away at its industry-leading margins. CRT Capital analyst Sheryl Skolnick suggested that HMA consider that very change during the company's latest earnings call back in January. "They brushed me off," recalls Skolnick, who has no rating on the company's stock. And "what we have now is very typical for HMA. They only recognize the obvious when it becomes so overwhelmingly the reality of the market that they can't ignore it anymore." Faced with ongoing industry pressures, HMA on Monday issued new 2006 earnings guidance of between $1.43 and $1.49 a share. HMA's recent shift to a new fiscal year somewhat muddies comparisons to the company's prior outlook -- which called for earnings of $1.51 to $1.56 a share -- but the new forecast clearly falls short of recent management promises. Unlike some other hospital operators, HMA previously insisted on maintaining its 2006 outlook in spite of a weak December quarter. When needled by analysts about that decision earlier this year, the company mentioned a January rebound in business. But HMA has now lowered its guidance by roughly 6.5% just two months down the road. "That's a fairly significant reduction," Skolnick notes. "It takes away all of the potential growth for this year."