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Ahead of the Bell: Analyst expects more HCA growth

The Associated Press

Shares of HCA Holdings Inc. have already climbed about 27 percent this year, and that momentum should continue as investors think about health care overhaul coverage expansion that will bring more insured patients to the hospital operator, according to a Jefferies analyst.

The prospect of more patients with some form of coverage for hospital chains like HCA should overshadow other developments that can affect stock prices, like earnings reports or a change in guidance, analyst Brian Tanquilut said in Monday research note.

The analyst has a "Buy" rating on shares of HCA, and he raised his price target for the stock to $45 from $30.

Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA operates about 163 hospitals and 109 free-standing surgery centers in 20 states and the United Kingdom.

Starting next year, the overhaul will expand the state and federally funded Medicaid program for the poor and disabled people in some states, and it will begin offering income-based subsidies that help people buy coverage. Analysts expect these coverage expansions to generate more revenue for hospitals that will likely see fewer uninsured patients.

Tanquilut said in his note that about 8 percent of the patients HCA admits are uninsured. But he cautioned that the amount of help the overhaul provides will depend on variables like the number of states that expand Medicaid coverage and the number of uninsured people who buy coverage.

The analyst said HCA is seen as a bellwether for hospital stocks and is expected to benefit the most from the overhaul's coverage expansions.

The company's stock price climbed 37 percent last year before closing 2012 at $30.17. That more than doubled the 13.4 percent gain registered by the Standard & Poor's 500 index. The shares then reached a 52-week high price of $38.46 on Friday before retreating slightly to close last week at $38.22.

The company will announce its fourth-quarter and 2012 results on Tuesday.