(Adds details on membership, comments from company and analyst)
Nov 7 (Reuters) - Humana Inc reported third-quarter profit that beat Wall Street estimates on Wednesday and the U.S. health insurer raised its full-year profit forecast, helped by strong demand for health plans in its core Medicare Advantage business for people who are older than 65 or with disabilities.
The number of people that signed up for individual health plans sold by the business rose 6.8 percent to 3 million over the 12 months since Sept. 30, 2017.
Humana raised its 2018 adjusted earnings forecast by 25 cents to $14.40 per share.
"We are pleased with the initial positive response to our individual Medicare Advantage offerings for 2019," said Chief Financial Officer Brian Kane in a statement.
He added that tax reform has partly helped the company invest in benefits for members and offer competitive Medicare Advantage products, which are expected to drive significant membership growth and an increase in adjusted earnings per share next year, in excess of its long-term growth target.
Humana has previously said it expects long-term growth of 11 to 15 percent.
Nearly all members who signed up for Medicare Advantage plans will have stable or enhanced benefits next year, Chief Executive Officer Bruce Broussard added.
Unlike rivals Aetna Inc and Cigna Corp, Humana has prioritized smaller deals, such as buying health care services companies that provide hospice service and home healthcare. The company has also focused on growing its Medicare Advantage business.
The solid quarter, 2019 selling season that is proceeding well, strong ratings on the health plans it offers, as well as the results of the 2019 mid-term elections set Humana up well for outperformance into next year, Leerink analyst Ana Gupte said.
Humana's adjusted consolidated benefit ratio, the percentage of premiums spent on claims, improved to 82 percent in the quarter from 82.4 percent last year.
Excluding items, the company earned $4.58 per share, beating analysts' average estimate of $4.26 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
Humana said net income rose 29 percent to $644 million, or $4.65 per share, in the quarter ended Sept. 30.
Total revenue rose nearly 7 percent to $14.21 billion. (Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)