The healthcare firm Aetna, one of the five biggest insurers in America, announced Monday during an earnings call that it is pulling out of the vast majority of Obamacare state health exchanges.
"As a strong supporter of public exchanges as a means to meet the needs of the uninsured, we regret having to make this decision," CEO Mark Bertolini said. The company complained that participation in the exchanges has cost it $200 million in pre-tax losses for the second quarter.
But only four months ago, Bertolini and Aetna were praising the exchanges: "We had strong growth on the public exchanges and we raised guidance for the year, so I think it was all and all a very solid quarter," Bertolini said on CNBC.
"[W]e see this as a good investment," he told investors at the time.
One thing happened in the meantime: Aetna made a play to merge with fellow healthcare titan Humana — following another attempted merger from big-five firms Cigna and Anthem — and the Department of Justice shut them down, filing an antitrust suit against all four firms in federal court. Justice said both mergers would create near monopolies for the super-sized companies and set them free to jack up prices.
An analyst for Jefferies told the Hartford Courant this month that Aetna may use its participation in the Obamacare markets as a bargaining chip to get its merger approved. "I believe they want the Humana deal badly enough they'd be willing to negotiate around that," analyst David Windley said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren ventured that there's a connection between the lawsuit and Aetna's slowly-extending middle finger to Obamacare. In a Facebook post last week, amid rumors the firm would pull out, she condemned Aetna's plan to bail on the exchanges.
"Aetna may not like the Justice Department's decision to challenge its merger, and it has every right to fight that decision in court," the senator wrote. "But violating antitrust law is a legal question, not a political one."
"The health of the American people should not be used as bargaining chips to force the government to bend to one giant company's will," she added.
Follow Brendan James on Twitter: @deep_beige