Health insurers Aetna and Humana will go to trial against the U.S. on Dec. 5 in defense of their planned $37 billion merger, pushing a judge’s decision on the tie-up beyond their deadline for completing the deal by year-end.
The decision on the trial’s timing came Wednesday after the Justice Department tried to persuade U.S. District Judge John D. Bates in Washington to delay the start until January, after the companies’ self-imposed Dec. 31 merger deadline. The judge said at a hearing that he expected a ruling around the middle of January.
The Justice Department’s antitrust division sued last month to block the tie-up and the separate $48 billion merger of Anthem and Cigna, contending that both combinations, which would reduce the number of national health insurers from five to three, would harm competition and undermine choice for consumers. The companies dispute assertions that their planned mergers would result in public harm.
Both antitrust cases were initially assigned to Bates, who handed off the Anthem case to another judge after Anthem told him last week that it too needed a ruling by the end of the year. Aetna declined to comment on the hearing, while Humana didn’t respond to a request for comment.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Bates first suggested a Nov. 7 start date and then pushed it back to December after objections from the Justice Department. Craig Conrath, a lawyer for the government, said the Dec. 31 deadline wasn’t a drop-dead date and could be extended. He said the government needed more time to prepare for trial because of the complexity of the case and because Aetna has proposed a divestiture of assets to Molina Healthcare Inc.
“We need a fair chance to try our case,” Conrath said.
Aetna lawyer John Majoras characterized the government’s position on the deadline as “another plank in the case,” suggesting that if one company walks away at the end of year, the government could declare victory.
“The date is there. The date does have consequences,” he said.