Regulation of Consolidation

Jaime King On Consolidation and Competition — The Trials and Triumphs of Health Care Antitrust Law New England Journal of Medicine March 18, 2023; 388:1057-1060 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2201629

 “Over the past 30 years, health care consolidation has gone largely unchecked by federal and state antitrust enforcers, which has resulted in higher prices, stagnant quality of care, and limited access to care for patients. Similarly, consolidation has contributed to the availability of fewer employment options, limited wage growth, longer hours, and staff shortages for health care providers.

Antitrust law is designed to prevent such harms, but its failure to evolve alongside the health care industry has led to pervasive consolidation, which now necessitates regulation in some markets to address market-power abuses that competitive forces can no longer govern…

Although mergers are often justified with promises of improved quality or patient access, evidence supporting these claims is lacking.

Clinical integration as envisioned in accountable care organizations, for example, requires substantial oversight, training, and investment that goes well beyond the financial integration involved in most mergers. Most studies have found either no changes or a reduction in quality after provider mergers. Consolidation can also limit access to care; post-merger facility closures, reductions in charity care, and elimination of abortion and other reproductive health services have often occurred.

Consolidation among insurers also affects health care prices and quality. Insurers with market power can increase premiums above competitive levels by exercising monopoly power or can push provider payments below competitive levels by exercising monopsony power. Lower premiums are commonly found in areas with more insurers, whereas in the absence of competition, insurers that obtain price concessions from providers may not pass savings on to consumers.4 Some evidence suggests, however, that moderate amounts of insurer consolidation may be associated with improved patient experience, since providers in such markets have an incentive to compete on quality.

Given the health care industry’s growing complexity, future oversight could involve a combination of more responsive antitrust enforcement and creative regulatory interventions. Combining competitive and regulatory forces may offer the only hope for controlling health care prices, restoring high-quality care, protecting health care workers, and preserving and expanding access to care.”

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