Only weeks after Anthem lawyers said they are relying on the Trump administration to pave the way for its controversial merger proposal, the health insurance giant’s top executive was scheduled to speak directly to President Donald Trump. The Tuesday phone call between Trump and Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish, which was disclosed by the White House, was the latest move in Anthem’s courtship of Trump, just as the conglomerate is pushing for Justice Department regulators to drop their antitrust lawsuit against Anthem’s proposed merger with Cigna.
Asked whether the mega-merger was discussed, Anthem spokesperson Jill Becher told International Business Times that the company is not commenting on what Trump and Swedish may have talked about. Just before the call, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he did not know the president’s position on the merger.
“I'm not aware of that,” Spicer said. “I don’t know that that would — that the president has ever expressed any personal view.”
Swedish last week became the highest profile insurance industry official to publicly promote the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In a letter to lawmakers seen as a much-needed political boost to the new president, Swedish said the health care legislation “addresses the challenges immediately facing the individual market and will ensure more affordable health plan choices for consumers in the short term.” He specifically praised provisions repealing health insurance taxes, preserving insurance industry subsidies and expanding tax credits for insurance products.
Swedish in late February thanked Trump “for the swift and decisive action” he said the president has already taken to shore up the health insurance industry. His company gave $100,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Anthem’s effort to build ties with Trump comes as its lawyers have said they are hoping the new president’s administration settles a Justice Department lawsuit aimed at blocking its Cigna merger. Court documents previously reported on by IBT show Anthem lawyers told a Delaware judge that it is “fighting” for a settlement from the Justice department now that the agency is under new leadership. An Anthem attorney said, “There’s reasons that we believe the merger is still able to clear,” noting that “now-Vice President Pence was supportive of the transaction as the governor of Indiana.”
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about its posture toward Anthem.
On the plus side for the company, Trump’s Securities and Exchange Commission recently helped Anthem block a shareholder proposal designed to force the company to more thoroughly disclose its lobbying expenditures as it has sought approval for the merger. The Trump-backed healthcare legislation also includes potentially lucrative provisions for Anthem and its executives beyond new tax breaks: For instance, it proposes to boost tax breaks for health insurance executives’ salaries. Trump has called for allowing insurance companies such as Anthem to sell insurance across state lines, which would let Anthem potentially circumvent certain states’ tough insurance regulations.
Less encouraging for the company was the Justice department’s move last week to continue its lawsuit against the Anthem-Cigna merger — at least for now. In a court motion, federal government lawyers pushed back against Anthem’s move to appeal a recent ruling against the merger. The department’s brief was filed by its antitrust division — and Trump has not yet named his own appointee to head that office. Anthem’s former top lobbyist, who now serves as Trump’s deputy White House counsel, has been rumored to be a top contender for the job.
Even if the Trump administration settles the federal case against the merger, that would not guarantee its approval: State insurance regulators would still have to approve the transaction. Those same regulators are currently facing pressure from Anthem’s recent threat to withdraw from state insurance exchanges for individual insurance coverage.
Last month, Swedish said in an earnings call that the company could pull out of those exchanges unless public officials stabilize the “overall rules of engagement” in the insurance marketplace. In Connecticut — which is Cigna’s home state and had been leading the regulatory review of the merger — a company official recently said it is “highly probable that we will issue notice of our intent to withdraw because of the uncertainties at this time.”
Earlier this year, a federal judge suggested that in a separate case, Aetna threatened to pull out of state exchanges in order to pressure federal officials to approve its merger with Humana. To date, Anthem has not explicitly linked its decision on state exchanges to whether it gets approval for the Cigna merger.