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Aetna still mulling next move on court-blocked Humana deal

Aetna Inc. is still reviewing its options in response to a trial court's ruling that blocked the company's planned acquisition of Humana Inc., according to chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini.

Speaking during an earnings call, Bertolini said the company could appeal the court's ruling or scuttle the deal. The company's merger agreement will expire Feb. 15, and therefore the company is "in no rush" and "will take all of that time" to reach a decision on whether or not to appeal, the executive said.

A federal judge, in a Jan. 23 opinion, ruled that the deal would significantly diminish competition in the Medicare Advantage market, siding with the U.S. Department of Justice, which brought the lawsuit to stop the merger. The court's disapproval to the merger came despite a proposal by Aetna and Humana to divest their Medicare Advantage plans to Molina Healthcare Inc. — a deal predicated on the Aetna-Humana merger occurring.

"I think the one thing that we could say about our [divestiture package] and some of the criticisms that are in the opinion by the judge is that the DOJ is looking for sustainable competition," Bertolini said with regard to the department's view of the company's proposal to sell its Medicare Advantage assets.

While evaluating the divestiture proposal, the DOJ was concerned whether the potential buyer had "a management team, and infrastructure and ability to remain in the markets, particularly in a retail product," Bertolini said. But he declined to comment whether there is any "flexibility in an appeal process" if Aetna finds a different suitor for its Medicare Advantage assets, saying it is still too early "to have that kind of conversation."