(Bloomberg) — Aetna Inc., the third-biggest U.S. health insurer, says third-quarter profit rose, defying analyst predictions for a decline, as the company boosted revenue from premiums and medical costs stayed stable.

Earnings excluding one-time costs climbed to $1.55 a share, 21 cents above the average estimate of 19 analysts tracked by Bloomberg. Full-year profit is now expected to be about $5.10 a share, at the top end of Aetna’s previous forecast, the Hartford, Conn.-based carrier said last week in a statement.

The insurers’ third-quarter surprise was driven largely by lower-than-expected medical costs in plans for private employers, said Ana Gupte, a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst in New York, in a note to clients.

UnitedHealth, based in Minnetonka, Minn., beat analysts’ estimates and raised its 2012 profit forecast this month, citing moderating costs and rising enrollment.

While Aetna may expand into domestic insurance outside the U.S., for now it sees a better bet in selling information technology and other services that help emerging countries modernize their health systems, Joseph Zubretsky, the company’s chief financial officer, says.

“Our future lies more in health care services and health information technology than merely just in the insurance business,” he says. “Job one is to help foreign governments build out the health-care infrastructure of the future.”

Aetna already offers coverage for expatriate workers outside the United States. It’s more active currently in the Middle East and Asia than Latin America, Zubretsky says.

“We have a lot of motivation and desire to grow overseas,” he says. “The meaningful revenue that we’ll get out of this is not in our strategic planning horizon. It’s beyond that. But we feel compelled to begin making the investment.”

Third-quarter net income rose 1.8% to $499.2 million, or $1.47 a share, from $490.4 million, or $1.30, a year earlier. Revenue increased to $8.92 billion from $8.48 billion, helped by a 7% increase in customer premiums.

The company had 18.17 million people in medical plans at the end of the quarter, less than the 18.23 million a year earlier. The enrollment did grow from this year’s second quarter, and the company says it had already reached the goal it set for membership at the beginning of 2012.

The insurer spent 80.7% of the premiums it collected on medical care for members. That, too, was up from 78.9% a year earlier while still an improvement over the second quarter.

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