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Cigna profit gets boost from lower costs as patients delay surgery

(Reuters) - Health insurer Cigna Corp CI.N beat Wall Street expectations for second-quarter profit on Thursday, helped by lower medical costs from delayed surgical procedures and strong sales from its pharmacy benefits business.

A screen displays the logo fro Cigna Corp. on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., July 16, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Files

The company, like rivals UnitedHealth Group Inc UNH.N and Anthem Inc ANTM.N, warned of increased medical costs during the second half as the lifting of lockdowns could lead to a rise in non-emergency surgical procedures that patients had put off due to the pandemic.

Chief Financial Officer Eric Palmer said medical utilization was expected to rise in the balance of the year, with additional costs related to COVID-19 treatment.

Cigna, however, reiterated its targets for the year despite challenges it expects to face.

“COVID-19 costs will continue to rise just as the cases will continue to grow ... However, the assumptions that the companies are building in around the non-COVID-19 related healthcare utilization probably accelerating in the back half of the year may be overly conservative,” Stephens analyst Scott Fidel said.

Cigna’s medical care ratio, which compares expenses related to medical claims with income from premiums, improved to 70.5% in the second quarter from 81.6% a year earlier.

The company, however, said healthcare utilization trends in July mirrored those in June and were only marginally below pre-pandemic levels. As a result, it expects to pay out more in medical claims in the back half of 2020.

Sales in its health services unit, which includes Express Scripts, rose nearly 22% to $28.6 billion.

The growth was driven by a 24% jump in adjusted pharmacy script volumes as it redirected prescriptions to Express Scripts from UnitedHealth’s OptumRx.

Excluding items, Cigna reported a profit of $5.81 per share, beating estimates of $5.15 per share, according to Refinitiv IBES data.

Cigna shares fell 1.7%, in line with the broader market.

Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Anil D’Silva