WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Anthem Inc and the U.S. Justice Department dug in their heels on Monday in court over whether the lower prices the health insurer expects to negotiate after buying smaller rival Cigna Corp are an efficiency that benefits customers or an antitrust violation.
In the first phase of what could be a two-stage trial, lawyers for the Justice Department argued that the $45-billion deal would lead to higher prices for big, nationwide employers which need a broad network of services.
Anthem, which announced the deal to buy Cigna more than a year ago, said the merger would create a new, bigger insurer with the power to push down prices it would pass onto customers.
"The notion that these Fortune 500 companies are going to be victimized here ... is not realistic," Anthem lawyer Christopher Curran said in court.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia may opt to block the proposed deal if she decides it will hurt big consumers. The Justice Department is asking her to declare the deal illegal under antitrust law.
"Efficiencies don't count if the only way you get them is more market power," the Justice Department's Jon Jacobs said in court.
The trial is expected to end by the end of the year.
Reporting by Diane Bartz, writing by Caroline Humer and Diane Bartz; Editing by Nick Zieminski