(Bloomberg) -- Centene Corp. fielded potential takeover interest from Cigna Corp. in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter, underscoring how large health insurers are still eager to consolidate despite regulatory aversion to jumbo deals in the space.  

The discussions were preliminary and didn’t lead to serious deal negotiations late last year, said the people, who asked to not be identified because the matter isn’t public. There are no talks ongoing, and it’s unclear whether they could be revived, the people said. 

While other insurers may also be interested in Centene, Cigna is seen as one of the most logical partners in the current, more-rigorous antitrust environment because the two have little overlap, the people said. Any deal would likely see Cigna needing to divest some assets, they added. 

Centene fell about 1.4% to close at $75.34 in New York on Wednesday, giving the St. Louis-based company a market value of about $44 billion. Cigna fell less than 1% to close at $234.02, giving the Bloomfield, Connecticut-based company a market value of about $77 billion. 

Representatives for Centene and Cigna declined to comment.

A deal would help Cigna to expand in the high-growth parts of the health insurance market: government-sponsored health-care programs. Centene is a powerhouse in Medicaid for low-income people and Medicare for older Americans. Cigna’s insurance business is focused more on commercial products sold to employers. The bulk of its revenue comes from managing prescription benefits and other services, rather than directly from medical premiums.

Any transaction would be among the biggest deals attempted by rival health insurers since two mega mergers collapsed in 2017 after being opposed by antitrust regulators and blocked by judges: a $48 billion effort by Anthem Inc. to buy Cigna; and a $35 billion proposed takeover of Humana Inc. by Aetna Inc.

Antitrust enforcers later signed off on Cigna’s $54 billion acquisition of pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts Holding Co. and CVS Health Corp.’s $68 billion merger with Aetna, both of which created behemoths in insurance and prescription-drug benefits.

Centene has been in the spotlight since the November announcement that Quentin Koffey’s Politan Capital Management had amassed a stake in the company. Centene said in December that longtime Chief Executive Officer Michael Neidorff would retire in 2022 after 25 years at the helm. It also agreed to add five directors to its board as part of an agreement with Politan. 

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