Judge casts doubt over Justice Department's challenge of UnitedHealth's Change acquisition

A federal judge questioned the arguments made by the Justice Department in its challenge of the proposed merger of UnitedHealth Group's Optum and Change Healthcare, according to The Wall Street Journal.

During closing arguments Sept. 8 in the ongoing antitrust trial seeking to block the merger, U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols cast doubt over the federal government's claims that the deal would be monopolistic and would harm competing payers.

The $13 billion acquisition was first proposed in January 2021 and would merge Nashville, Tenn.-based Change with OptumInsight to offer software, data analytics and other services to healthcare clients.

Though originally expected to close in the second half of 2021, the deal has been heavily scrutinized by medical groups and federal agencies and has broader implications for the Biden administration's ability to expand and enforce federal antitrust regulations. 

If the deal is approved, UnitedHealth committed to selling Change's claims editing business, ClaimsXten, to TPG Capital for $2.2 billion to resolve the concerns of anticompetitive behavior.

On Sept. 8, attorneys representing the government argued that the sale of ClaimsXten wasn't enough and that the deal would give UnitedHealth "unprecedented monopoly power" over claims payments.

According to the Journal, the judge suggested that another company would eventually arise to compete in claims processing anyway, so the merger wouldn't create a monopoly.

The Justice Department also argued that the merger would give UnitedHealth access to competing payers' data through Change, which could lead to less innovation and the harming of customers. The judge then asked the agency's attorneys to point to evidence in the trial that shows that situation would occur.

UnitedHealth's attorney said no competitors testified in the trial that they would be negatively affected by the merger.  

"The lack of support is remarkable," the United lawyer said. "It's layer upon layer of speculation."

The Journal reported that the court's decision is expected within the next few weeks.

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