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Rating Agencies Weigh In On WellPoint%2DWellChoice Deal

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Investors seem to like the idea of WellPoint Inc. acquiring WellChoice Inc., but the rating agencies are wondering how easy it will be for WellPoint to fold WellChoice into its own operations.[@@]

WellPoint, Indianapolis, announced plans Tuesday to pay $6.5 billion in stock and cash for WellChoice, New York, the parent of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

WellPoint investors shrugged.

Investors react to some acquisition announcements by sending the stock of the acquirer plunging.

WellPoint shares have been selling for about $75. The price of a WellPoint share edged down 8 cents Tuesday and 32 cents today.

The rating agencies’ reviews are mixed.

Moody’s Investors Service, New York, is maintaining its stable outlook for WellPoint, but Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, New York, says it is changing its outlook for WellPoint to stable, from positive.

The Chicago office of Fitch Ratings says it is putting WellPoint on “Rating Watch Negative.”

The old Anthem Inc., Indianapolis, completed the merger with WellPoint Health Networks Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif., that created the WellPoint Inc. in November 2004.

One of the worst plagues that afflict corporate acquirers is computer integration problems. WellPoint has avoided computer integration problems by keeping acquired companies’ old computer systems going, Moody’s says.

Eventually, the strategy of keeping “legacy systems” could prove to be unwieldy, but, so far, WellPoint has faced no major integration problems, Moody’s says.

S&P analyst Joseph Marinucci is calling the WellChoice deal “an excellent strategic fit” for WellPoint.

“But it exposes WellPoint to operational and financial risks,” Marinucci says.

One risk that slowed the Anthem-WellPoint deal was opposition by consumer groups and state officials who wondered if that deal would be good for the people of California.

WellPoint and WellChoice already have announced that New York, which owns the majority of WellChoice stock, will get about $2 billion in cash and the same amount in stock in connection with WellChoice deal.

The WellChoice deal probably will not face the kinds of regulatory concerns that arose in California, Marinucci says.

Fitch analysts say they still have concerns about integration.

Although Anthem and the old WellPoint both were successful at integrating acquired Blues plans over the past few years, the challenges of integrating Anthem and the old WellPoint and integrating WellChoice could cause problems, Fitch says.

“The ratings also reflect the competitive pressures in several of [WellPoint's] markets, driven by price competition, increasing medical costs trends, and the evolving regulatory and political environment affecting the health insurance and managed care industry,” Fitch says.