More than three years after signing a letter of intent to merge, Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network have finalized the deal.
The combination of the Philadelphia-based organizations brings together two academic medical centers and creates an integrated 18-hospital system with more than 50 outpatient and urgent care locations.
“The culmination of the multiyear process of bringing two great organizations with more than 300 combined years of service, clinical excellence and academic expertise is not just a merger,” said Stephen Klasko, MD, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. “Einstein and the new Jefferson together represent an opportunity for the Philadelphia region to creatively construct a reimagining of healthcare, education, discovery, equity and innovation that will have national and international reverberations.”
The merger had previously faced antitrust scrutiny and delays from legal challenges. In particular, both the Federal Trade Commission and Pennsylvania’s attorney general sued the health systems in attempts to block the deal.
The FTC sued in February 2020, arguing that the combination of the two systems would reduce competition in both Philadelphia and Montgomery counties “to the detriment of patients.” An appellate court denied the FTC’s attempt to block the merger in December 2020, and the FTC officially dropped its challenge to the transaction in February 2021.
The Pennsylvania attorney general also dropped his opposition to the merger in January 2021 after the FTC lost its case.
Ken Levitan will continue serving as president and CEO of Einstein and add the role of executive vice president at Jefferson Health. In his new role, he will help guide the integration efforts.
About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.
The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.
For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.
They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.
Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.
In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.
But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.
Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.
“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”
The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.
“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”
Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.
The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.
Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.
When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.
Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.
Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.
Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.
The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.
What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.
At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.
In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.
It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.
Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.
The Federal Trade Commission has been hit by a “tidal wave” of merger filings and cannot review them all before required deadlines.
The FTC is now sending letters to merging entities warning them that the agency may deem a combination unlawful even if the companies decide to merge.
“Companies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk,” the regulator said in a statement Tuesday.
The alert may give pause to hospitals merging at a steady clip. Unwinding deals once they’re already consummated can be costly and complex. The premerger filings give regulators a chance to stop anticompetitive mergers before a deals closes, preventing harm to consumers and businesses in the meantime.
The FTC received 343 premerger filings in the month of July, more than three times the amount from July of last year, when 112 transactions were submitted for review.
So far this year, more than 2,000 transactions have been submitted through the month of July, according to figures with the FTC, eclipsing the 815 filings over the same time period last year.
Federal regulators have forced hospital to unwind mergers before.
The FTC forced ProMedica to unwind its buyup of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Toledo area after alleging the deal would severely hinder competition. The FTC later approved a divestiture plan in 2016 after a long battle in court.
It came even as the FTC had signaled it plans to prioritize enforcement in a number of key industries including healthcare.
Plus, last year the FTC said it was expanding a key tool in its arsenal to potentially help police future deals.
Mergers that exceed a certain threshold — currently $92 million — are required to submit a premerger filing with the FTC per the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act.
The filing initiates a review period in which the FTC and Department of Justice investigate the deal.
Typically, the agencies have 30 days to determine whether additional information is needed. If so, the deal is on hold until the companies respond with the needed information, and after that the agencies have a limited number of days to file a challenge if they deem the tie-up unlawful.
The FTC can also terminate the waiting period early, allowing the deal to proceed.
However, the agency maintains the right to challenge any deal regardless of whether it was reviewed or not.
Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.
It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.
But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. “The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”
If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.
Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye.Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.
UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.
While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.
On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”
Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.
Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.
Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.
To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.
Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.
Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.
Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.
Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”
In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.
UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.
Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”
The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.
The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”
There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”
Jefferson’s hospital network will grow to 18 locations with Einstein’s three general acute care hospitals and an inpatient rehabilitation hospital.
The merger between Pennsylvania-based Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network can now close after the Federal Trade Commission voted to withdraw its opposition to the deal, Jefferson Health announced this week.
The deal is now expected to be finalized within the next six months.
Earlier this year, the FTC voted 4-0 to voluntarily dismiss its appeal to the Third Circuit of the district court, according to the commission’s case summary.
Once the deal is complete, Jefferson’s network of hospitals will grow to 18 with the addition of Einstein’s three general acute care hospitals and an inpatient rehabilitation hospital.
WHY IT MATTERS
Merger plans were first announced in 2018 in a deal estimated to be worth $599 million.
The FTC initially blocked the merger because it believed it would reduce competition in the Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
It alleged the deal would give the two health systems control of at least 60% of the inpatient general acute care hospital services market in North Philadelphia, at least 45% of that market in Montgomery County, and at least 70% of the inpatient acute rehabilitation services market in the Philadelphia area.
But late last year, a federal judge blocked the FTC’s attempt to stop the merger. Judge Gerald Pappert of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote that the FTC failed to demonstrate that there’s a credible threat of harm to competition. He pointed to other competitors in the region, such as Penn Medicine, Temple Health and Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic.
The FTC and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to appeal the court’s decision, but after Jefferson and Einstein filed a motion to withdraw the case, the commission unanimously voted to drop its appeal.
THE LARGER TREND
The FTC is taking a closer look at healthcare mergers and acquisitions to better understand how physician practice and healthcare facility mergers affect competition. Earlier this year, it sent orders to Aetna, Anthem, Florida Blue, Cigna, Health Care Service Corporation and United Healthcare to share patient-level claims data for inpatient, outpatient and physician services across 15 states from 2015 through 2020.
The analysts expect activity to ramp up moving forward, however. They predict that as health systems evaluate their business strategies post-pandemic, those in strong positions will take advantage of other systems’ divestitures to grow their capabilities and expand into new markets.
ON THE RECORD
“We are excited to have Einstein and Jefferson come together, as our shared vision will enable us to improve the lives of patients, the health of our communities and enhance our health education and research capabilities,” said Ken Levitan, the interim president and CEO of Einstein Healthcare Network.
“By bringing our resources together, we can offer those we care for – particularly the historically underserved populations in Philadelphia and Montgomery County – even greater access to high-quality care.”
The Federal Trade Commission has closed its investigation of the merger between Atrium Health Navicent and Houston Healthcare System following news the two have abandoned their plans for a deal.
FTC staff had recommended commissioners challenge the merger on grounds that it would have led to “significant harm” for area residents and businesses in the form of higher healthcare costs, the FTC alleged.
The tie-up between two of the largest systems in central Georgia would also hamper investment in facilities, technologies and expanded access to services, according to a statement released Wednesday.
FTC Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said in the statement, “This is great news for patients in central Georgia.”
When the deal was originally announced, Atrium Health Navicent promised to spend $150 million on Houston over a decade, earmarking the money for routine capital expenditures and strategic growth initiatives, according to a previous review of the transaction by the state attorney general’s office.
After engaging with consultants at Kaufman Hall in 2017, leaders at Houston, an independent system, decided they needed to find a strategic partner to weather long-term challenges and ultimately picked Navicent.
Navicent recently merged with North Carolina-based Atrium Health, formerly known as Carolinas HealthCare System. At the time, the deal gave Atrium a foothold in the state of Georgia.
Healthcare consolidation has continued at a steady clip despite the pandemic, and the FTC will be closely investigating any deal involving close competitors. The agency is seeking to expand its arsenal to block future mergers by researching new theories of harm.
The FTC attempted to block a hospital deal in Philadelphia last year but has since abandoned its challenge after a series of setbacks in court. The judge was not swayed that the consolidation of providers would lead to an increase in prices given the plethora of healthcare options in the area.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance.
The Competitive Health insurance Reform Act of 2020 became law on January 13, a move praised by the Department of Justice but opposed by health insurers.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance and regulated by state law.
With enactment of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act, the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission have expanded authority to prosecute alleged anticompetitive behavior, including data sharing between insurers.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act previously afforded immunity by exempting from federal antitrust laws certain conduct considered the “business of insurance.” This exemption has sometimes been interpreted by courts to allow a range of what the Justice Department considered “harmful” anticompetitive conduct in health insurance markets.
The new law aims to promote more competition in health insurance markets by limiting the scope of conduct that’s exempt from antitrust laws. This move was praised by the Trump Justice Department shortly before the former president left office.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The antitrust scrutiny is coming at a time when insurers are under a deadline to meet interoperability standards to share information with patients that meet Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, standards.
“The McCarran-Ferguson Act recognized that all healthcare is local, and that states should be able to govern their own health insurance markets,” Eyles said in December. “Removal of this exemption adds tremendous administrative costs while delivering absolutely no value for patients and consumers. It will unnecessarily add layers of bureaucracy, destabilize markets, create conflicting federal and state oversight requirements, and lead to costly litigation.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 2 voicing its concern for the bill’s passage.
“The premise of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act is that collusion among health insurance companies is permitted under state law and that the McCarran-Ferguson Act somehow currently protects these practices. This is not true. The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption for health insurance does not allow or encourage conspiratorial behavior but simply leaves oversight of insurance, including health insurance, to the states – and state laws do not allow collusion,” commissioners said.
“The potential for bid rigging, price-fixing and market allocation is of great concern to state insurance regulators and we share your view that such practices would be harmful to consumers and should not be tolerated. However, we want to assure you that these activities are not permitted under state law,” commissioners wrote.
While insurers have not been thrilled with the move, Consumer Reports said the legislation is good for providers who have felt pressured into contract terms that benefit insurers.
THE LARGER TREND
The Justice Department has a track record of successfully enforcing the antitrust laws against health insurers. Over the past five years, the department has enforced the antitrust laws against health insurers involved in transactions valued at over $160 billion.
The Act will help the department build on those successes by requiring health insurers to play by the same rules as competitors in other industries. It will clarify when health insurers qualify for the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and it will enable the Antitrust Division to spend resources more efficiently to achieve desired results, the Justice Department said.
On January 13, Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22.
The FTC wants to figure out how hospitals’ acquisitions of physician practices has affected competition.
The agency sent orders to some of the nation’s largest insurance companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Cigna, Florida Blue and Health Care Service Corporation.
This action is part of a larger effort underway at the agency to consider new questions and areas of study to help it understand the ultimate impact of mergers. The hope is that those studies will yield evidence to better equip the agency to legally challenge mergers in the future.
Health economists cheered the news online following the FTC’s Thursday’s announcement about studying physician practice buy-ups.
Martin Gaynor, former director of FTC’s Bureau of Economics, tweeted: “This is a big deal – a huge # of physician practices are now owned by hospitals.” Gaynor is a health economist at Carnegie Mellon.
In the orders, the FTC asks the insurers for data such as the total billed charges of all health providers, total deductibles, copays and coinsurance paid by the patient. It also asks for data tied to each inpatient admission and outpatient and physician episodes during the time period in question, which will likely result in a barrage of data for the agency to review.
“The study results should aid the FTC’s enforcement mission by providing much more detailed information than is currently available about how physician practice mergers and healthcare facility mergers affect competition,” the agency said in a statement.
This area of study expands the agency’s current work. One area already of interest within this broader retrospective merger review program is the scrutiny of labor markets.
One area of concern for the FTC is states’ willingness to greenlight COPAs, or certificates of public advantage (COPAs), which essentially shield mergers from federal antitrust regulators in exchange for prolonged state oversight.
The Federal Trade Commission is revamping a key tool in its arsenal to police competition across a plethora of industries, a development that could have direct implications for future healthcare deals.
One avenue it will zero in on is labor markets, including workers and their wages, and how mergers may ultimately affect them.
It’s an area that could be ripe for scrutinizing healthcare deals, and the FTC has already begun to use this argument to bolster its case against anticompetitive tie-ups. Prior to this new argument, the antitrust agency — in its legal challenges and research — has primarily focused on how healthcare mergers affect prices.
The retrospective program is hugely important to the FTC as it is a way to examine past mergers and produce research that can be used as evidence in legal challenges to block future anticompetitive deals or even challenge already consummated deals.
“I do suspect that healthcare is a significant concern underlying why they decided to expand this program,” Bill Horton, an attorney with Jones Walker LLP, said.
So far this year, the FTC has tried to block two proposed hospital mergers. The agency sued to stop a proposed tie-up in Philadelphia in February between Jefferson Health and Albert Einstein Healthcare Network.
In both cases, the agency alleges the deals will end the robust competition that exists and harm consumers in the form of higher prices, including steeper insurance premiums, and diminished quality of services.
The agency has long leaned on the price argument (and its evidence) to challenge proposed transactions. However, recent actions signal the FTC will include a new argument: depressed wages, particularly those of nurses.
In a letter to Texas regulators in September, the FTC warned that if the state allowed a health system to acquire its only other competitor in rural West Texas, it would lead to limited wage growth among registered nurses as an already consolidated market compresses further.
Last year, the agency sent orders to five health insurance companies and two health systems to provide information so it could further study the affect COPAs, or Certificates of Public Advantage, have on price and quality. The FTC also noted it was planning to study the impact on wages.
FTC turned to review after string of defeats
A number of losses in the 1990s led the agency to conduct a hospital merger retrospective, Chris Garmon, a former economist with the FTC, said. Garmon has helped conduct and author retrospective reviews.
Between 1994 and 2000, there were about 900 hospital mergers by the U.S Department of Justice’s count. The bureau lost all seven of the cases they attempted to litigate in that time period, according to the DOJ.
The defendants in those cases succeeded by employing two types of defenses. The nonprofit hospitals would argue they would not charge higher prices because as nonprofits they had the best interests of the community in mind. Second, hospitals tried to argue that their markets were much larger than the FTC’s definition, and that they compete with hospitals many miles away.
Retrospective studies found evidence that undermined these claims. That’s why the studies are so important, Garmon said.
“It really is to better understand what happens after mergers,” Garmon said. It’s an evaluation exercise, given many transaction occur prospectively or before a deal is consummated. So the reviews help the FTC answer questions like: “Did we get it right? Or did we let any mergers we shouldn’t let through?”