UnitedHealth Group's data division and growth in its insurance business for Medicare beneficiaries drove a better-than-expected jump in fourth-quarter profit at Minnesota's largest company.

The company's latest results, released Wednesday, continued a long string of strong quarterly reports for the Minnetonka-based company.

"Our businesses remain strong and well-positioned for continued balanced growth by delivering even higher levels of societal value," said David Wichmann, the company's chief executive.

UnitedHealth Group operates UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation's largest health insurer. The company also operates a health-services division called Optum that includes three distinct units — a health care data business, a growing unit for clinics and outpatient medical centers and one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical benefits managers (PBMs).

Health insurance remains the bigger of the two businesses in terms of sales, but Optum has been growing at a faster rate while generating higher profit margins.

During the fourth quarter, UnitedHealthcare generated operating revenue of $48.2 billion compared with $29.8 billion at Optum. UnitedHealthcare and Optum hire one another for services, so total revenue for the quarter after eliminating intercompany sales came in at $60.9 billion — about 4% better than the year-ago period.

Quarterly profit of $3.54 billion was up more than 16% from the year-ago period. After adjusting for one-time factors, income of $3.90 on a per-share basis beat by 12 cents the expectations of analysts surveyed by Refinitiv.

The Optum numbers were buoyed once again by the clinic business, which grew significantly during 2019 with UnitedHealth Group's acquisition of DaVita Medical Group. During the fourth quarter, the OptumHealth division that includes clinics posted operating earnings of $901 million on $8.3 billion of revenue.

A tough start to the flu season during the fourth quarter didn't have a big effect on financial results, said Dr. Wyatt Decker, the physician who runs OptumHealth.

Optum's clinics often are paid by health insurers to take risk for patient outcomes, which means an unexpectedly bad flu season or any other surge in illness could hurt financial performance if patients need more care than expected. But Decker noted the division also includes the MedExpress chain of urgent-care centers, which are paid on a fee-for-service basis and would therefore see better financial performance with more flu.

What's more, the strain of flu virus circulating is generating more outpatient health care needs, Decker said, vs. costly hospitalizations. The division also includes a growing network of surgery centers, including up to 12 facilities that Optum could be developing in the coming years in conjunction with Minneapolis-based Allina Health System.

OptumInsight — provider of services and systems used by hospitals and clinics to manage $70 billion in billings per year — posted strong numbers as well with $905 million of operating income on $2.96 billion of revenue during the quarter.

"We are connecting the health system to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and an improved experience for patients and their clinicians," said Andrew Witty, the Optum chief executive. "This includes developing the connective infrastructure that integrates clinical systems, revenue management platforms and administrative claims transactions to enable critical bidirectional data exchange."

Membership in health insurance products in the U.S. stood at 43.4 million people at the end of December, down slightly from the end of the third quarter but up from last year. Executives said they now expect to add 700,000 enrollees in Medicare health plans during 2020.

UnitedHealthcare has been the nation's largest seller of Medicare Advantage health plans, where seniors opt to receive government benefits via private insurers, and the results from open enrollment for the plans late last year "were our strongest ever," Wichmann said.

UnitedHealthcare in recent months launched a new "site of service" initiative designed to control costs by steering patients to receive certain services at lower-cost surgery centers rather than the outpatient departments in hospitals.

The company's shares closed up more than 2.8%.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck