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UnitedHealth’s Expansion Strategy Is Threatened by US Regulators

The dominant insurer wants to add data company Change Healthcare to its stable, but the government says the deal would open a window into rivals’ plans.
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Illustration: Woshibai for Bloomberg Businessweek

UnitedHealth Group Inc., the giant US health-care conglomerate that insures nearly 46 million Americans, reaches into almost every corner of the health system. Beyond the insurer it’s best known for, the company, through its Optum services unit, runs a pharmacy benefit manager that fills 1.4 billion prescriptions annually. It also operates the country’s largest physician workforce—more than 60,000 doctors. Early last year, UnitedHealth bid to expand its reach by purchasing Change Healthcare Inc., a health technology business that operates critical systems for moving data and money between medical providers and insurers—including many of UnitedHealth’s rivals.

To gain its extensive reach, the company has relied on a string of acquisitions, with hardly a peep from regulators in the past. But now the US Department of Justice is seeking to block the $7.8 billion Change deal, arguing it would harm competition. It’s the first major challenge to a health-care merger to go to trial during the Biden administration. The case, which a federal judge in Washington will hear starting on Aug. 1, will test the executive branch’s power to curb the largest health-care companies as they enter new markets and accumulate data on competitors along the way. And a Justice Department win could chill deals involving valuable data in other industries.