(Adds company, analyst comments, updates shares, PIX available)
By Manas Mishra and Caroline Humer
May 1 (Reuters) - CVS Health Corp on Wednesday raised its full-year profit forecast and reported first-quarter earnings that topped Wall Street estimates due to growth in its Aetna health insurance business, and as drug prices fell within its expectations.
Shares rose more than 5 percent to $57.35. They had fallen 17 percent this year, hurt by a weak forecast in February and a cut to rival Walgreen Boots Alliance's full-year outlook last month due to lower generic drug prices.
Aetna, CVS's health insurance unit, beat analysts' consensus by more than a billion dollars in the quarter, helped by its accounting for lower medical costs than anticipated during the fourth quarter.
The company, which bought Aetna for $69 billion in November, said 2019 cost savings from the deal were tracking near the high end of its $300 million to $350 million range, and that 2020 savings would likely exceed its $750 million target.
The company said a handful of new "HealthHub" pharmacies launched in Houston this year that provide healthcare services, such as chronic care management for diabetes, have drawn more customers than expected. It plans to launch more such stores in Houston and plans to provide details of a national roll-out next month.
"Consumerism in healthcare is here to stay," CVS Chief Executive Larry Menlo said. "We are beginning to see this evolution through the HealthHubs. We are not just selling hundreds of products, it's a combination of products and services."
Menlo also said the company would take part in a pilot project announced by the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to expand point-of-sale rebates to patients in Medicare plans. The government has also proposed a rule that would require health plans to pass on all rebates, but it is not clear if it will be finalized for 2020.
Sales in its health care benefits unit rose by $16.55 billion to $17.78 billion with the addition of Aetna to its operations.
Sales of prescription drugs at its pharmacies were hurt as the company gets paid less for filling prescriptions. That was offset by higher volumes and higher prices of brand name drugs.
CVS in February had cautioned that rebate payments it guaranteed to customers were larger than what it has received from drugmakers due to lower-than-expected increases in drug prices.
"Considering that expectations have been low, we see this as the first positive catalyst that restores investor confidence in this management team," SVB Leerink analyst Ana Gupte said of the first-quarter profit and raised 2019 forecast.
CVS said it now expects full-year adjusted profit of $6.75 to $6.90 per share, compared with its prior forecast of $6.68 to $6.88.
Overall sales at its retail unit, which also sells over-the-counter-drugs and consumer health products, rose 3.3 percent to $21.12 billion.
The drugstore chain operator and pharmacy benefits manager said it earned $1.62 per share excluding items, beating analysts' average estimate by 12 cents per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
Net income rose 42.4 percent to $1.42 billion in the first quarter. Revenue rose 34.8 percent to $61.65 billion. (Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Bill Berkrot)