Buoyed by a positive earnings forecast, a big new contract in Texas and a client base that figures to expand under health care reform, shares of Molina Healthcare Inc. have been yielding healthy returns to investors.

The Long Beach managed care provider’s stock rose 10 percent to close at $31.56 for the week ended Feb. 1, making it one of the biggest gainers on the LABJ Stock Index. (See page 24.)

The spike followed a Jan. 26 earnings forecast that beat Wall Street estimates. The company announced it expected earnings of $1.80 a share on revenue of $6.1 billion for fiscal year 2012, while analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected earnings of $1.77 a share on revenue of $5.53 billion.

The stock gains haven’t been a one-week phenomenon. Shares of the company, which specializes in operating Medicaid and Medicare HMOs, are up 41 percent since the beginning of the year.

Analysts said that’s because there are more business opportunities than ever for such HMOs, which take a set payment from the state to deliver health care to qualifying elderly and low-income patients. As states struggle with budget problems, more have stopped operating Medicare and Medicaid directly – paying doctors on a fee-for-service basis – and instead are putting the programs out for bid to managed care companies, hoping for greater efficiencies.

“It’s accelerating due to the fact that states are struggling financially and looking for alternative ways to control some of their biggest line items,” said Tom Carroll, an analyst in the Baltimore office of Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

In August, Molina was one of several bidders to win such a contract with the state of Texas, which it estimates will generate more than $600 million in annual revenue. It also was able to hold on to most of its dominant market share in Washington state with a new contract there in September, even though the state opened up its Medicaid program to new bids.

In all, Molina operates Medicaid HMOs in 10 states and Medicare HMOs in eight. While the business is booming now, what the company is really looking forward to is the possible implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, which will expand Medicaid coverage to an estimated 16 million more people by raising the income cutoff.

“My big concern right now is how do we position ourselves for the growth that we’re going to see in 2013 and 2014?” said Chief Executive Joseph Mario Molina at a Jan. 26 investor conference.

Among the states expected to see the most new Medicaid enrollees because of health care reform are California, Florida and Texas – places where Molina has a large presence.

“They’re in all of the large expansion states,” said Sarah James, an analyst at downtown L.A.’s Wedbush Securities, who estimates the company’s business could grow 20 percent to 30 percent.

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