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Oxford Health's Loss Slims
NORWALK — Managed care giant Oxford Health Plans Inc. Thursday reported a slimmer-than-expected fourth-quarter net loss amid signs its massive restructuring is proceeding ahead of schedule.

Oxford reported a net loss of $18.8 million or 23 cents a diluted share vs. a loss $285 million or $3.58 in the year-earlier quarter. The current year results were boosted by a $29-million gain, but hurt by $14-million one-time charge linked to medical costs, while the 1997 loss reflected restructuring charges.

The news did little to boost the stock, however, though Oxford's shares did briefly trade higher at the open. By early afternoon, Oxford shares were down $1.69 on the NASDAQ early Thursday afternoon, trading at $18 a share.

Minus the gain and one-time charge, Oxford had a loss of $33.8 million or 42 cents a share, still far below the 78-cent share loss estimate put out by First Call Corp, a company that tracks corporate earnings. Oxford has not turned a profit since the third quarter of 1997.

Chuck Hill, director of research of First Call Corp., said in an interview that his company's consensus estimate would have not have included the $29 million gain posted to fourth quarter. He said he was unsure whether analysts expected that $14-million one-time charge linked to medical costs.

"It would appear that anyway you cut it, they beat the estimates," Hill said.

In a prepared statement, Chief Executive Norm Payson said Oxford reaped the $29 million gain because its turnaround plan was chugging along ahead of schedule and costing less than expected.

Fourth-quarter operating cash flow totaled $48.1 million, including Medicare advanced premiums of $68 million. Quarterly revenues dipped to $1.13 billion from $1.14 billion a year earlier.

The managed care giant had surprised investors when it announced in January it would produce a positive EBITDA by the first quarter of this year rather than the second half, as Oxford's Payson originally predicted. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, has become a popular tool among analysts in recent years to quickly size up a company's underlying financial health.

Commercial membership, the number of people enrolled in the company's health plans minus Medicaid and Medicare patients, as of Jan. 1 came to 1.54 million, down from 1.56 million. Its total membership, including Medicaid and Medicare patients, came to 1.9 million, down from 2 million a year earlier. The drop is partly due to Oxford's decision to exit several unprofitable Medicare markets, including New York City.

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