WASHINGTON—A federal judge said Friday she wouldn’t be able to rule by the end of 2016 on the legality of Anthem Inc.’s proposed acquisition of Cigna Corp., a setback for Anthem’s efforts to hold the deal together.
The Justice Department sued last month on antitrust grounds to block the proposed Anthem-Cigna deal, as well as a second major health-insurance merger that would combine Aetna Inc. AET 0.18 % and Humana Inc. HUM 0.49 %
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is presiding over the Anthem matter, said during a scheduling hearing Friday that Anthem’s proposed timeline for a trial was too fast, while a more extended schedule requested by the Justice Department was too slow. She said she was aiming to rule by the end of January.
Anthem had requested that a trial be concluded in time for the judge to rule this year, expressing worry that Cigna will back out of the transaction at the first opportunity. Anthem can extend its merger agreement with Cigna to April 30, 2017, but after that Cigna can walk away and seek a $ 1.85 billion breakup fee.
Anthem argued that the faster schedule was necessary because it would need at least 120 days after a court ruling to secure regulatory approvals from state insurance regulators.
Judge Jackson didn’t set a firm trial schedule at the hearing but said she would do so soon.
The judge on multiple occasions noted the continuing tensions between Anthem and Cigna and said it was a “bizarre situation” that the court, and other relevant parties, were being asked to move so quickly in the case “for the benefit of a merger that may not be desired” by Cigna.
Cigna lawyer Charles Rule said the company remained committed to the merger agreement and to litigating the case, but he didn’t commit to giving Anthem or the court additional time. Mr. Rule said he couldn’t say what Cigna’s board would do on April 30.
Anthem lawyer Christopher Curran said the company would commit to doing everything it could to move the case along as quickly as possible.
Mr. Curran reiterated Anthem’s belief that Cigna will walk away if given the opportunity. He said Cigna for now has to say it remains committed to the deal in order not to jeopardize its potential collection of the merger breakup fee.
The Justice Department argues the merger would harm consumers, employers and health-care providers with an unacceptable reduction in competition. Anthem disagrees, saying the deal will benefit the public.
Write to Brent Kendall at [email protected]