LINCOLN — A major managed care company announced plans Thursday to sell off its Medicaid subsidiaries in Nebraska and Missouri.

The sale, by the Tampa, Florida-based WellCare Health Plans to Indianapolis-based Anthem, should help clear the way for a merger between WellCare and the St. Louis-based Centene Corp.

It also means Nebraska Medicaid patients would continue to have three choices for coverage.

Both WellCare and Centene, which owns Nebraska Total Care, operate Medicaid plans in Nebraska. Along with United Healthcare Community Plan, they contract with the state to administer physical health, behavioral health and pharmacy services for about 228,000 Nebraska Medicaid patients.

State Medicaid Director Matthew Van Patton said the acquisition must win approval from state and federal authorities, including the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Van Patton said HHS is committed to the tenets of its managed care program, called Heritage Health. Those include “giving consumers a diverse choice of coverage options in Nebraska,” he said.

Centene announced plans in March to buy WellCare in a deal worth about $17 billion. The merger has been approved by a number of states.

Nebraska insurance regulators approved the deal in August on the condition that the merged entity divest itself of the WellCare Nebraska Medicaid plan.

Anthem is a for-profit managed health care company and the nation’s second-largest health insurer. It operates Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states, including Missouri. It will take on 300,000 Medicaid members through the acquisition.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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