These days, only one for-profit hospital operator -- Community Health Systems ( CYH) -- seems immune to widespread industry pain.

Continuing an impressive run, experts predict the rural hospital operator will once again please Wall Street with its latest quarterly results. By now, the company has repeatedly proven that it can hit its quarterly targets, even as competitors like HCA ( HCA) and Health Management Associates ( HMA) post disappointing numbers because of weak patient volumes and rising bad debt from the uninsured.

As a result, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Robert Hawkins recommended buying Community Health alone when initiating coverage of the hospital sector earlier this week.

"In our opinion, Community Health has the most disciplined operating model and has carefully cultivated a culture and standardized system to acquire underperforming non-urban hospitals and turn them into star performers after a few years under its management," explained Hawkins, whose firm has disclosed no financial ties to the company. Moreover, "Community Health has an enviable earnings track record and has met or exceeded consensus estimates in each of the 24 quarters it has been a public company. ... We expect that Community Health will extend its quarterly streak."

Specifically, Hawkins has predicted that Community Health will match the second-quarter consensus profit estimate of 53 cents a share, despite a soft quarter for the group. Looking further ahead, he believes the company could then go on to beat Wall Street's $2.20 profit projection for the entire year.

Thus, Hawkins views Community Health as a good investment now, and an even better one if the stock falls on weak second-quarter results from the industry as a whole.

In the meantime, the company's stock slipped 5 cents to $36.24 on Thursday. It handily outperformed the group last year and currently trades near the middle of its 52-week range.

Chronic Pain

To be sure, however, Community Health has found itself operating in a tough industry environment.

Leerink Swann analyst Ann Hynes foresees even more pain ahead. This week, Hynes expressed caution about the entire sector after surveying dozens of hospitals across the country.

For the second quarter, Hynes says, most hospitals that responded to the survey reported soft inpatient admissions offset by stronger outpatient volumes. More specifically, they reported relatively flat commercially insured admissions and a slight drop in their Medicare business. Only self-pay admissions -- which can generate no revenue at all -- showed solid growth for the period.

For now, she reported, commercial pricing continues to increase at a relatively strong rate. However, she said, hospitals expect those price increases to fall as the year wears on.

Hynes cited the rise in so-called consumer-driven health plans as a big cause for that expected deterioration.

"Employers want to make employees more aware and responsible for their healthcare choices and as a result, continue to shift more of the cost of the healthcare dollar onto the employee," she explained. "The continued rise in co-payments and deductibles could result in a mix shift into low-quality plans. Not only should this negatively impact pricing, but also utilization" of hospital care.

UnitedHealth ( UNH) -- one of the nation's largest health insurers and a leader in the consumer-driven movement -- seemed to validate Hynes' report that same day. UnitedHealth reported on Wednesday that patients with consumer-driven plans seek hospital services far less than those who carry more traditional health insurance. Over a three-year period, the company reported, patients with consumer-driven plans had 22% fewer hospital admissions and 14% fewer emergency room visits than their more heavily-insured counterparts.

UnitedHealth has sold its consumer-driven health plans to 1.75 million customers and counting.

Of the hospitals responding to Hynes' survey, only 35% reported a jump in lower-paying insurance plans to date. However, a whopping 86% foresee growth in such plans going forward. Meanwhile, hospitals seem very concerned about shifts in government-funded healthcare coverage as well.

"When asked 'what do you worry about most,'" Hynes wrote, "respondents cited future reimbursement (Medicare cuts and erosion in managed-care products) pressures in an environment of rising costs."

In the meantime, Hynes -- like many -- feels most comfortable with outperformer Community Health heading into this earnings season. Still, she clearly seems worried about the industry as a whole.

"We remain cautious on the hospital sector due to continued volume and bad-debt pressures and, in particular, deteriorating pricing trends," she wrote. "As a result, we believe earnings visibility is low and do not think there is multiple expansion opportunity from current levels."

Hynes currently has market-perform ratings on all of the hospital stocks except for Universal Health Services ( UHS), which has benefited from its unique focus on behavioral health facilities during the acute-care services downturn. Hynes has an outperform rating on Universal Health. Her firm has disclosed no investment banking relationships with any of the hospital stocks that it covers.

Healthy Picks?

JPMorgan analyst Andreas Dirnagl appears more upbeat.

Dirnagl, too, likes Community Health better than other hospital companies. However, he recommends buying urban hospital operators HCA and Triad ( TRI) as well.

Dirnagl looks for HCA to meet Wall Street targets for the quarter, though he concedes that the company might have a better chance of missing expectations than it does of beating them. Still, he believes that the company has positioned itself well for an industry turnaround and can continue to support its stock price with aggressive share repurchases in the meantime.

Dirnagl, for one, would like to see Triad initiate a big stock buyback. Regardless, he has faith that the company's focus on partnerships with physicians and nonprofit hospitals will pay off for investors in the long run.

As the same time, however, Dirnagl seems to recognize that some investors may have already lost faith in upbeat analysts.

"We believe the selloff in hospital stocks is a reflection of investors 'running out of patience' waiting for bad-debt stabilization and improved utilization trends to materialize (the thought being a number of sell-siders like us have been on the 'relief right around the corner' soapbox, but investors think it's time to get with the bears)," Dirnagl wrote earlier this week. "While we are in no way trying to downplay the uphill battle that the industry as a whole has been grappling with, we would like to point out that in our opinion, most of the downside is likely priced into stocks at current levels and, more importantly, there are a couple of high-quality stories -- CYH, TRI and HCA -- that have been dragged down with others in the process.

"In short, we continue to believe that investors can realize incremental share price appreciation from current levels when buying into the aforementioned names."

JPMorgan counts all three of those recommended hospital companies as clients of the firm. It also helped manage a public securities offering for HCA over the past 12 months and owns 1% or more of the company's stock. It owns at least 1% of Triad's stock as well.