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HMO SHARES PLUNGE; WELLPOINT TAKES 1-TIME CHARGES.

Byline: Ben Sullivan Daily News Staff Writer

Second-quarter charges amid otherwise strong performance sent shares in managed care specialist WellPoint Health Networks Inc. down sharply Thursday.

WellPoint ended the day off $7.625, or 10.6 percent, to close at $64. More than 5.3 million shares traded hands, or 13 times the issue's six-month average daily volume.

Analysts said the sell-off to a degree reflected simple profit-taking by shareholders. Before Thursday, WellPoint stock had risen 46 percent in six months. ``And it's always easy to sell something at a profit,'' said Ken Abramowitz, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in New York.

But WellPoint Chief Executive Leonard Schaeffer said he was startled by the markets' strong reaction to his firm's earnings news. ``I think it must have confused some analysts,'' Schaeffer said.

WellPoint, which operates in California as Blue Cross of California, recorded a second-quarter loss of $46.8 million as a result of one-time charges it took to jettison its stake in a pair of money-losing ventures. Schaeffer said the moves will leave WellPoint poised for better performance in coming quarters, but investors appeared to concentrate more on the here-and-now in bidding-down the company.

WellPoint wrote-off $79.6 million, or $1.11 a share, from the sale of its workers compensation unit, Unicare Specialty Services Inc., to Santa Monica-based Fremont General Corp. Fremont agreed to pay $100 million for the business, which WellPoint acquired in 1994 for $160 million.

Also, WellPoint took a charge of $29 million, or 42 cents a share, on the devaluation of 1.5 million FPA Medical Management Inc. shares it holds. The troubled physician management group filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, leaving WellPoint's shares in it virtually worthless. WellPoint inherited the FPA stock when the physician group last year bought a company WellPoint co-owned.

The charge-related quarterly loss aside, WellPoint said earnings from continuing operations rose 16 percent. Profit-before-charges rose to $61.7 million, or 86 cents a share, compared to $53.4 million, or 76 cents in 1997. That growth resulted largely from increased membership in WellPoint health plans. In California, membership grew by 16 percent to 4.5 million, while elsewhere in the country it rose 4.4 percent to 2.3 million members.

Schaeffer predicted that WellPoint shares would rebound within a few days as investors have a chance to analyze the company's position. In the meantime, Salomon Smith Barney and Goldman Sachs each downgraded the company Thursday to ``outperform'' from recommended status.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 31, 1998
Words:414
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