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Digging for Deals in Health Care

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Political uncertainty presents an opportunity for contrarian investors.

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The health-care sector is huge here in the US, accounting for 16% of GDP, and politicians have decided the system demands a radical overhaul.

So, on Saturday, as you kicked back beers at the local bar, your policymakers passed sweeping health care reform by a 220-215 margin.

The Wall Street Journal provides us with a CliffsNotes version of the House bill: The measure spends $1.05 trillion over a decade to provide health insurance to an additional 36 million Americans, it creates a new public insurance plan by 2013, and it requires most Americans to carry insurance.

The prospect of health-care reform has some investors spooked, which is exactly why some market pros say now might be a good time to buy health-care stocks.

Analysts argue that the bill ultimately signed by the president will be less dramatic than what the House served up this past weekend. More to the point, the attractions of the health-care sector remain in place: It's financially strong, cheap, and demographically well positioned, although stock pickers will need to be careful, pros insist, on where they sharp-shoot for opportunities.

Arthur Henderson, an analyst at Jefferies, wrote to his clients that he believes the bill President Barack Obama ultimately signs into law will be decidedly less expensive than what we have seen so far.

The Democrats right now might be claiming victory, Henderson writes, and there's the sense that reform has new momentum behind it, but we're a long way from final legislation as the Senate continues to be the battleground for reform.

"There, the debates will be lengthy and tedious, and the bill that emerges will be much smaller than what the House has produced," the analyst argues.

He concludes, "A smaller bill means that deeply discounted stocks of reform-targeted subsectors like managed care and home nursing should continue to move higher."

As for specific stock picks, Henderson continues to like Express Scripts (ESRX) and Medco Health Solutions (MHS), noting their strong fundamentals, robust cash flows, and reform neutrality.

Those investors with higher risk tolerance, he says, should check out Almost Family (AFAM) and Amedisys (AMED).

"We are highly confident both of these names, along with Gentiva Health Services (GTIV) and LHC Group (LHCG), will move dramatically higher," Anderson says.

The strengths of the health-care sector are many. It's financially solid, historically being among the least levered sectors, notes Alex Morozov, associate director of Morningstar's health-care team.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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