HCA Inc., the biggest U.S. hospital company, on Monday said it will report lower-than-expected quarterly results, amid a weak flu season, slowing patient admissions in major markets and more uninsured customers.

HCA cited tepid admissions in Florida and Virginia, two of its most lucrative states, and a 10.5 percent total drop in flu-related admissions as weighing on results.

Florida is about 25 percent of their business, so when Florida sneezes, (HCA) gets the flu, said Kemp Dolliver, an analyst at Cowen & Co.

A slower-than-expected recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are contributing to weak admissions in Florida, where fewer people are vacationing as rebuilding has stalled, he said. He added that Virginia has suffered from increased competition.

Nashville-Tenn.-based HCA said it expects earnings for the first quarter in a range of 89 to 93 cents per share, compared with 95 cents per share in the first quarter of 2005.

Results fell short of analyst expectations. Excluding special items, HCA earned about 78 cents to 82 cents per share in the quarter, analysts said.

Other companies with big stakes in Florida include Tenet Healthcare Corp. , Health Management Associates, and Universal Health Services, analysts said.

U.S. hospitals are also struggling with treating the rising rolls of uninsured, now at 46 million people, or about 15 percent of the U.S. population. Discounts for the uninsured in the first quarter were $256 million, compared to $109 million a year earlier.

As hospital companies have pared costs in response to weak industry volume in recent years, when you get a particularly negative quarter like this, there is not a lot of operating leverage to adjust, Deutsche Bank analyst Darren Lehrich, who has holds on virtually all hospital companies, including HCA, said.


Some analysts said the weak results are already priced into HCA stock. Standard & Poor's analyst Cameron Lavey said the basic story -- hospitals struggling with rising numbers of uninsured -- remains the same.

HCA shares fell more than 2 percent at the open, then stabilized in late morning trade, falling less than 1 percent at $44.86.

First-quarter results include an 11-cents-per-share gain for investment sales and a 2-cents-per-share charge for expensing stock options.

HCA predicted first-quarter revenue rising to $6.4 billion, compared to $6.2 billion a year earlier.

Bad debt as a percentage of revenue, including the uninsured discounts, will rise to 12.8 percent, compared with 10.9 percent of revenue a year earlier.

Same-hospital admissions fell 0.7 percent compared to the prior year's quarter.

HCA will report full results on April 25.