Aetna claimed this summer that it was pulling out of all but four of the 15 states where it was providing Obamacare individual insurance because of a business decision — it was simply losing too much money on the Obamacare exchanges.
Now a federal judge has ruled that that was a rank falsehood. In fact, says Judge John D. Bates, Aetna made its decision at least partially in response to a federal antitrust lawsuit blocking its proposed $37-billion merger with Humana. Aetna threatened federal officials with the pullout before the lawsuit was filed, and followed through on its threat once it was filed. Bates made the observations in the course of a ruling he issued Monday blocking the merger.
Aetna executives had moved heaven and earth to conceal their decision-making process from the court, in part by discussing the matter on the phone rather than in emails, and by shielding what did get put in writing with the cloak of attorney-client privilege, a practice Bates found came close to “malfeasance.”
The judge’s conclusions about Aetna’s real reasons for pulling out of Obamacare — as opposed to the rationalization the company made in public — are crucial for the debate over the fate of the Affordable Care Act. That’s because the company’s withdrawal has been exploited by Republicans to justify repealing the act. Just last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cited Aetna’s action on the “Charlie Rose” show, saying that it proved how shaky the exchanges were.
Bates found that this rationalization was largely untrue. In fact, he noted, Aetna pulled out of some states and counties that were actually profitable to make a point in its lawsuit defense — and then misled the public about its motivations. Bates’ analysis relies in part on a “smoking gun” letter to the Justice Department in which Chief Executive Mark Bertolini explicitly ties Aetna’s participation in Obamacare to the DOJ’s actions on the merger, which we reported in August. But it goes much further.