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GOP tax law lifts health care industry

Data: Company reports. Get the data; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Health care companies reported larger profits in the final quarter of 2018, compared with the same period in 2017, and the Republican tax overhaul helped pad their bottom lines, according to an Axios analysis of financial documents.

The intrigue: Like other industries, many health care companies took sizable charges in the final quarter of 2017 as they repatriated overseas cash. Now, firms are feasting on lower tax rates — and in some cases, are getting federal tax refunds.

Between the lines: The GOP law made it easier to bring home money that was parked abroad, which many pharmaceutical and medical device companies did in late 2017. It also eliminated tax provisions that have specifically helped large companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers. But the industry's biggest prize has been the significantly reduced corporate tax rate.

  • Drug giant Pfizer received a $563 million tax benefit in the fourth quarter, and its corporate income tax rate in all of 2018 was just 6%.
  • Johnson & Johnson's effective tax rate in the last quarter of 2018 was 2.6%.
  • Almost half of the $551 million tax break recorded by hospital chain HCA Healthcare in 2018 came in the fourth quarter.

Yes, but: Industry profits would have been even larger in the fourth quarter if it weren't for a few outliers.

  • AbbVie had a $1.8 billion net loss in Q4 because it had to book a $4 billion impairment charge for a drug acquisition that flopped. Mallinckrodt similarly had a giant impairment charge, leading to a $3.7 billion loss in the quarter.

The big picture: The industry remains financially powerful.

  • Tax law aside, the companies that handle the most revenue, like health insurers collecting premiums and drug distributors shipping products, are not the most profitable.
  • The highest margins are still usually associated with manufacturers of prescription drugs and medical devices.

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