A rare ally of the GOP health care plan has its own motivations

A pedestrian walks past the corporate headquarters of health insurer Anthem, formerly known as Wellpoint, on Dec. 3, 2014 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Darron Cummings/AP)
A pedestrian walks past the corporate headquarters of health insurer Anthem, formerly known as Wellpoint, on Dec. 3, 2014 in Indianapolis.
The Republican health care plan is noticeably short on allies. Not long after the GOP's American Health Care Act was unveiled, it was denounced by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, AARP, the American Cancer Society, the American Psychiatric Association, a wide variety of governors, and consumer advocates.With this in mind, the White House was understandably delighted last week when Anthem, one of the nation's largest private health insurers, expressed vague support for key elements of the bill, saying the Republican plan "addresses the challenges immediately facing the individual market."And while any private company is obviously free to support or oppose any legislation it wishes, Anthem's announcement stood out, largely because it was so out of step with every other major stakeholder in the health care system. With so many stepping up to criticize the bill some have labeled "Trumpcare," why exactly did Anthem go where others didn't?The New York Times' David Leonhardt shed some useful light on a possible answer to that question.

It turns out that one of the bill's few high-profile fans may not even support it on the merits. Instead, Anthem appears to be providing political cover to the administration at the same time that company officials are lobbying the administration for a favorable decision on another matter. It's pretty brazen.Here are the details: Anthem, which is based in Indiana, is already the largest insurer in California, Kentucky, Virginia and elsewhere. Two years ago, its chief executive, Joseph Swedish, made a big bet. He decided to put public pressure on Cigna, another major insurer, to accept a merger. Eventually, Swedish succeeded, and Anthem agreed to pay $48 billion to buy its rival.But the Obama administration's Justice Department filed suit against the merger, arguing that it would force consumers to pay higher prices. Last month, a federal judge agreed and blocked the merger. Cigna isn't happy with the deal anymore either and has filed a $14 billion lawsuit against Anthem. None of it makes Swedish look good.

Anthem, in other words, wants something from the Trump administration: clearing the way for a lucrative merger. To that end, the insurer has an incentive to tell the administration what it wants to hear, which has started to pay dividends: Anthem executives were invited to a private meeting with Donald Trump and HHS Secretary Tom Price this week, where the company was able to make the case for possible changes that would benefit itself.In other words, by expressing mild support for the GOP legislation, Anthem was rewarded with key access others haven't received.As Leonhardt concluded, the president is left with the realization that "one of the only people who likes his ideas is someone whose paycheck may depend on making the president happy."Postscript: In case this sounds at all familiar, note that Aetna wanted Obama administration approval for its proposed merger with Humana, and when the White House balked, Aetna scaled back its participation in the Affordable Care Act -- according to some, a decision made out of spite. Anthem's moves, however, are related to a different company.