Analyst: WellPoint CEO search down to two

One Wall Street analyst says Indianapolis-based health insurer WellPoint Inc.'s search for a new CEO is down to two candidates: former Aetna Inc. CEO Ron Williams and Amerigroup Corp. CEO Jim Carlson.

Justin Lake, a health care analyst at JPMorgan Chase, called Carlson the “frontrunner,” but said he suspects Williams will end up with the job. Lake expects WellPoint to name a new CEO in the first quarter of 2013, which is about the same time Williams’ non-compete agreement with Hartford-based Aetna is set to expire.

“He has a very strong operating background, is known and respected by investors from his time at Aetna, actually has previous experience at WellPoint [as president of its Blue Cross of California health plan], BCBS connections, and we personally see him as a solid innovative and strategic thinker,” Lake wrote about Williams in a Nov. 9 research note. BCBS refers to Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the brand of health plans WellPoint operates in 14 states.

Carlson is currently merging his company, Virginia-based Amerigroup, into WellPoint, and before year’s end will become the head of a new Medicaid division within the organization.

Carlson has been a popular choice among analysts, but current and former company insiders say there is little buzz internally around his name. Carlson's appointment to lead the Medicaid division was interpreted inside WellPoint as a sign he would not be the CEO.

Getting both Carlson and Williams into WellPoint’s management would be the best outcome for the company, Lake said.

“Best of all, adding both Mr. Carlson and Mr. Williams to management could be just the catalyst WellPoint needs given years of investor frustration with the company’s failure to take advantage of strong assets,” Lake wrote in his report.

Indeed, investors grew so frustrated with previous CEO Angela Braly that they forced the WellPoint board of directors to get rid of her in August. The board named General Counsel John Cannon as interim CEO, but he said he does not want the job permanently.

Cannon’s performance has been well-received by investors and analysts, but there has been no indication that he might reconsider his candidacy for CEO.

Meanwhile, David Snow, the former CEO of New Jersey-based Medco Health Solutions Inc., is no longer in the running for the job. And two internal candidates—Chief Financial Officer Wayne DeVeydt and Ken Goulet, the head of WellPoint’s commercial business—are still seen as long shots.

Another dark-horse candidate, according to some analysts, is Mike Mikan, the former CEO of the Optum Health division of WellPoint rival UnitedHealth Group. OptumHealth is a $29 billion mix of IT businesses that provide data, disease management and financial services to various parts of the health care industry.

The success of OptumHealth has helped Minnesota-based UnitedHealth to outperform WellPoint and its other rivals over the past 18 months.

Mikan finished a stint as interim CEO of Minnesota-based electronics retailer Best Buy Co. in September.

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