UPDATE 3-HCA sees higher COVID-19 hospitalizations in first half of 2021

(Adds comments from conference call)

Feb 2 (Reuters) - Hospital operator HCA Healthcare Inc said on Tuesday it expects higher COVID-19 hospitalizations in the first half of the year as the United States battles to control a pandemic that has claimed nearly half a million lives domestically.

The company, which beat analysts’ estimates for fourth-quarter profit, recorded 56,000 COVID-19 inpatients, a 40% jump from the previous quarter.

“We anticipate our COVID volume to be heavier in the first half of the year and then hopefully will decline in the second half, as broader segments of the population receive a vaccination,” said HCA Chief Financial Officer William Rutherford.

The company’s profits took a hit last year when patients put off discretionary healthcare procedures due to the fear of contracting the novel coronavirus infection.

Fewer admissions and weak demand for elective procedures, however, were nearly offset in the fourth quarter by revenue from more severe admissions requiring costlier care.

“It appears that total volumes are down from baseline, but revenues up as COVID is likely at higher prices than some avoided services,” Bernstein analyst Lance Wilkes said in a client note.

Revenue per same-facility equivalent admission, a measure of sales per patient staying overnight at a hospital and those treated on an outpatient basis, rose 14.1% from a year earlier due to increases in acuity of patients treated.

The ongoing increase in the acuity profile of the patients has a significant influence from COVID-19 hospitalizations and from sicker patients being treated in hospitals, whereas we see lower acuity individuals deferring hospital treatments for pursuing care in other settings, said Stephens analyst Scott Fidel.

The company forecast 2021 revenues to be between $53.5 billion and $55.5 billion, while analysts on an average estimate $54.33 billion, according to Refinitiv data. (Reporting by Dania Nadeem, Manojna Maddipatla and Trisha Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)