New York — Aetna Inc. backed its 2008 and 2009 profit outlooks Monday, saying it will provide investors with more information about its financial strength amid worries about the balance sheets and capital positions of health insurers.

Shares of the U.S. health insurer rose 7.2% after it affirmed its 2008 forecast of $3.90 to $3.95 a share, excluding items.

Bank of America analyst Brian Wright says in a research note it was important that Aetna backed its forecast after closing its November books. The move should help alleviate concerns that its results would be hurt by medical claims carrying over from prior quarters.

Aetna says it will hold a conference call today to provide information about its balance sheet, capital position, cash flow, capital deployment, investment portfolio and pension plan.

The company said in October that pension expenses caused by the weak markets would weigh on next year’s profit, which it expected to rise by 3% to 5% over this year.

On Monday, Aetna also affirmed 2009 expectations, although it said that was subject to pension expenses that will be determined by where the market stands at the end of 2008.

“With the continued volatility in the capital markets, there has been significant interest from investors and analysts with respect to our balance sheet, capital position and other related aspects of our investment portfolio,” CFO Joseph Zubretsky says in a statement.

The call, he says, “will provide additional information about our portfolio so that investors have a more comprehensive view of why we are confident that Aetna has the financial strength and flexibility to manage in the current economic environment.”

Health-insurer shares have been hit hard this year as worries about their balance sheets and capital strength compounded a raft of profit warnings earlier in the year that sparked fears of a sector downturn.

Through last Friday, Aetna shares had fallen about 64% this year, compared with a 62% drop for the S&P Managed Health Care index.

Source: Reuters

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