By Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. judge on Monday denied the Justice Department's bid to stop UnitedHealth Group from buying Change Healthcare, in a blow to the U.S. administration's tougher enforcement of antitrust issues.
Change shares rose 7% after the close of trading.
The Justice Department had filed a lawsuit in February aimed at stopping the $8 billion acquisition, saying the deal would give the largest U.S. health insurer access to its competitors' data and ultimately push up healthcare costs.
The department's top antitrust official, Jonathan Kanter, said they are "reviewing the opinion closely to evaluate next steps".
UnitedHealth announced the all-cash deal in January 2021, saying it would help streamline administrative and payment processes.
Judge Carl Nichols said in a brief order on Monday that he would deny the government's request to stop the deal, and ordered the companies to go forward with an asset sale that they had proposed.
The order follows a trial in the case in August in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
UnitedHealth said it was "pleased with the decision" and looked forward to combining with Change as quickly as possible.
The Justice Department had said that UnitedHealth and Change Healthcare offer competing software for processing healthcare claims and together serve 38 of the top-40 health insurers in the country.
The department argued that access to the claims would give UnitedHealth a view into rivals' health plans, including Humana Inc, Anthem Inc and others.
The loss for the Justice Department follows a recent decision by a Federal Trade Commission judge that genetic analysis equipment maker Illumina should be allowed to buy cancer detection test maker Grail - a move opposed by the agency.
The Justice Department also lost a bid to win convictions of executives at chicken processing companies that it accused of price-fixing.
But the agencies have also had wins, and successfully killed planned deals by Aon Plc and Willis Towers Watson Plc as well as Lockheed Martin's plan to buy engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Deepa Babington and Christian Schmollinger)