Shares of HCA, Nashville, fell about 20% today after the company said patient volume for the first quarter had declined, leading to lower-than-expected earnings. HCA said its admissions for pulmonary and flu-related illnesses dropped 9% in the quarter, a change attributed to a mild flu season. The closing of 17 skilled-nursing and seven obstetrics units -- being converted to acute-care use -- also contributed to the admissions decline, HCA said. First-quarter earnings per share are now expected to be from 81 cents to 83 cents, HCA said. On average, analysts were predicting profits of 88 cents per share, according to First Call/Thomson Financial. HCA already had been hit last week by an analyst's downgrade, and another report yesterday suggested that the company's contract dispute with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee indicated that HCA will have trouble maintaining year-to-year contract increases of 8%. HCA's shares were priced at around $29 in midday trading, down about $7 from yesterday's close. -- by Vince Galloro
HCA's lower-than-expected volume to cut profits
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