U.S. judge in Anthem merger trial sets trial for November 21, plans ruling by late January 2017

August 12, 2016 12:52 PM EDT

The office building of health insurer Anthem is seen in Los Angeles, California February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas


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By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The judge overseeing the U.S. Justice Department's bid to stop health insurer Anthem (NYSE: ANTM) from merging with competitor Cigna (NYSE: CI) said on Friday her goal was to have a ruling by the end of January, later than the Dec. 30 date sought by Anthem.

Anthem had sought a ruling by the end of the year on whether the government could stop the deal because the insurer said it needed time to wrap up merger reviews by state insurance commissioners by April 30, a deadline the companies set to complete the deal. Anthem has said failure to meet the deadline could prompt Cigna to pull out.

In a brief order issued late on Friday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia set a trial date for Nov. 21, with a conclusion by Dec. 30. She gave the government 10 days to present its case and gave Anthem six days.

The judge said in a pre-trial hearing on Friday morning that she expected a decision in January. "My current thinking is that I'm going to aim for a decision by the end of January," she said.

Cigna is unlikely to agree to extend the April 30 deadline because of the two companies' contentious relationship, a lawyer for Anthem said last week.

The Justice Department filed lawsuits on July 21 asking a federal court to stop two huge healthcare mergers: Anthem's planned $45 billion purchase of Cigna, as well as Aetna (NYSE: AET) Inc's $33 billion planned acquisition of Humana (NYSE: HUM). The trial on the Aetna deal is set for Dec. 5.

Anthem's lawyer, Christopher Curran, indicated during the hearing that the company was most concerned about reviews on the merger in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia and New Hampshire.

During the hearing, lawyers for the Justice Department and Anthem both said they were willing to discuss a settlement but neither indicated that talks were ongoing.

"There is absolutely a willingness" to hold settlement discussions, said the Justice Department's Jon Jacobs, who added, however, that any proposed remedy would take time to evaluate.

Anthem's Curran said the company "stands ready" to discuss a settlement.

The Justice Department argues that the deals would reduce competition, raise prices for consumers and stifle innovation if the number of large, national insurers fell from five to three.

If both mergers go through, No. 1 U.S. insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc (NYSE: UNH) would rank second after Anthem. Aetna would be No. 3.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Will Dunham and Dan Grebler)



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