(Adds details from conference call, analyst comment, updates shares)
By Tamara Mathias and Caroline Humer
Oct 15 (Reuters) - UnitedHealth Group Inc on Tuesday provided an optimistic outlook for 2020 profit, saying it expected growth to be at least 13%, which outpaces current Wall Street estimates and sent its shares up as much as 8.6%.
The largest U.S. health insurer, which also raised its 2019 earnings forecast for the third time this year, is targeting earnings growth of between 13% and 16% in the long term.
Wall Street analysts had forecast growth of 11% next year.
UnitedHealth, the first health insurer to report third-quarter results, also lifted rivals Anthem, CVS Health, Humana, Molina, Centene and Cigna, as well as the overall market.
UnitedHealth Chief Executive Officer David Wichmann said on a conference call with analysts and investors that he is optimistic about 2020 and also called the company's forecast "conservative."
"We think it's a reasonable and prudent position at this distance," he said, adding the company expected strength in its Optum unit, which includes a pharmacy benefits management business, and sales of its Medicare Advantage plans for people over age 65, to propel growth.
UnitedHealth also posted third-quarter earnings that beat Wall Street estimates and raised its full-year adjusted earnings forecast to between $14.90 to $15 per share, up from an earlier view of $14.70 to $14.90.
Results from the industry bellwether come as a relief to a sector that has been facing uncertainty in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. With some Democrat candidates proposing elimination of private health insurance in favor of a government-run health plan and increased scrutiny of healthcare costs, UnitedHealth stock had fallen about 11% this year.
BMO Capital Markets analyst Matt Borsch said the stock may have risen as much as it did because the report eased concerns about the potential for elevated medical costs and 2020 earnings. "There's been this massive relief this morning," he said.
For the quarter, the company's medical care ratio, or the percentage of premiums paid out for medical services, was 82.4%, worsening from 81% last year but in line with the average analyst estimate.
Revenue from the health insurance business rose 4.7% to $48.11 billion in the third quarter, while Optum posted a 13.3% jump to $28.76 billion.
Excluding items, UnitedHealth earned $3.88 per share, beating the average analyst estimate by 13 cents, bolstered by higher Optum revenue as well as its core health insurance business.
Total revenue rose 6.7% to $60.35 billion, beating Wall Street estimates of $59.79 billion, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
UnitedHealth shares were up nearly 8% at $238.00 after climbing as high as $239.84 earlier. (Reporting by Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr and Bill Berkrot)