Universal Health Services shares down sharply on earnings

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Universal Health Services corporate headquarters in King of Prussia.

Shares in Universal Health Services Inc., a major operator of acute-care and psychiatric hospitals, were down more than 7 percent Thursday after a key earnings measure for the King of Prussia company’s first-quarter earnings missed the target Wall Street analysts had set by about $20 million.

Steve Filton, UHS’s chief financial officer, told analysts on a conference call that the miss was only about $5 million to $6 million based on the company’s internal budget for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), with the shortfall coming on the behavioral side of its business.

“We attribute most of the shortfall to an outpatient revenue shortfall, and we attribute that shortfall to weather, and mostly weather issues in markets like Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.,” Filton said. The company is close to its internal targets for the full year, and that’s not much different than analysts’ estimates, he said.

Still, UHS’s shares closed down 5.75 percent, or $7.02, at $115.02 at the New York Stock Exchange. Its EBITDA was $442.1 million in the first quarter, down from $460.3 million in last year’s first quarter. Net revenues were $2.69 billion, up from $2.61 billion.

Ann Hynes, an analyst with Mizuho Securities USA Inc., asked Filton if UHS was contemplating any moves to unlock the company’s value — after more than two years of lackluster performance by the stock.

“Your acute-care business is doing really well, you are under-levered, you generate good cash, and although behavioral is underperforming, it’s still a great business. The stock doesn’t reflect that reality,” she said.

Among the things the company could do to boost its is shares is buy them back for outside investors, but the company hit the pause button on share repurchases — a popular use of the windfall from the recent corporate tax cuts — while it works toward a settlement of a long-running civil False Claims Act investigation of billing practices at about 30 of its psychiatric facilities.

“We would really like to get to the other side of this government investigation before we do that in any significant way,” Filton said.

In the first quarter, the company added $13 million pretax to its reserves for a potential settlement, bring the pretax total to $35 million. Filton said UHS increased the reserve because “companies are required to reserve for at least bare-minimum level of willingness to settle in these situations,” but that does not mean UHS is close to settling for that amount.

“It is possible that that number changes a number of times in the future,” Filton said. “We would hope not too many times, and we would hope this doesn’t go on for too long, but honestly we are largely stuck at going at the government’s pace.”