U.S. Markets close in 4 hrs 26 mins

Humana eyes stronger ties with Walmart despite Walgreens partnership

(Adds CEO comment from conference call, updates shares)

By Tamara Mathias and Ankur Banerjee

Aug 1 (Reuters) - Humana Inc said it was looking to expand its tie-up with Walmart, easing concerns that the insurer's agreement with drugstore chain Walgreens Boots Alliance would prevent it from broadening its partnership with the retailer.

Humana's shares rose about 4 percent to a record high of $326.97 after Chief Executive Bruce Broussard's comments on a call discussing the company's better-than-expected earnings.

"We still value and have a strong relationship with Walmart," Broussard said, adding that the insurer is looking at ways to expand the partnership.

Walmart currently has a co-branded Medicare drug plan with Humana that steers patients to Walmart stores. The partnership offers a prescription drug plan that can save up to 20 percent in drug costs for customers.

In June, the insurer announced it would partner with Walgreens, with its unit operating senior-focused primary care clinics inside two Walgreens stores in Kansas, a move some analysts said at the time ended any speculation over a deal with Walmart.

Reuters reported in March that Walmart was in early talks with Humana about developing closer ties, with a possible acquisition on the table.

"Both of them (ties to Walmart and Walgreens) are complementary," Broussard said, adding partnering with one does not restrict the other deal.

Unlike its rivals, Humana has said it will focus on partnerships and smaller deals while cementing its dominance in the Medicare Advantage business, which powered a better-than- expected second quarter profit.

Humana, in the past few months, has joined hands with private equity firms to buy health care services companies, creating the largest hospice operator in the United States.


RAISES FORECAST

Humana also raised its 2018 adjusted earnings forecast to about $14.15 per share from its previous forecast of $13.70 to $14.10 per share.

The company's adjusted consolidated benefit ratio, the percentage of premiums spent on claims, deteriorated to 84.3 percent in the quarter, missing consensus estimate of 83.9 percent according to brokerage Evercore ISI.

Over the past few quarters, insurers have kept a tight leash on medical costs and even a slight slip has weighed on stocks.

Earlier this month, the largest U.S. health insurer UnitedHealth Group reported quarterly medical costs slightly higher than expected, overshadowing a second quarter profit beat.

Excluding items, Humana earned $3.96 per share, beating analysts' average estimate of $3.77, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose 5.4 percent to $14.26 billion, above the average estimate of $14.16 billion. (Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Shounak Dasgupta)