Medical group deals face growing antitrust scrutiny as price worries rise

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Recent actions by antitrust enforcers and courts to block or regulate purchases of physician practices by hospitals and insurers may signal increasing scrutiny for such deals as policymakers intensify their focus on boosting competition to reduce healthcare prices.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with UnitedHealth Group and DaVita unwinding United’s acquisition of DaVita Medical Group’s Las Vegas operations.

At the same time, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser separately reached a deal imposing conditions on UnitedHealth’s acquisition of DaVita’s physician groups in Colorado Springs.

Also in June, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a District Court ruling blocking Sanford Health’s proposed 2015 acquisition of the multispecialty Mid Dakota Clinic in the Bismarck, N.D., area. That antitrust case originally was filed by the FTC and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in 2017.

And in May, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson settled an antitrust lawsuit with CHI Franciscan setting conditions on the health system’s 2016 affiliation with the Doctors Clinic, a multispecialty group, and its purchase of WestSound Orthopaedics, both in Kitsap County. CHI Franciscan will pay up to $2.5 million, distributed to other healthcare organizations to increase access to care.

The cases represent the most significant antitrust developments involving physician acquisitions since federal and state antitrust enforcers won9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2015 upholding a lower-court decision forcing Idaho’s St. Luke’s Health System to unwind its 2012 acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group.

The agreements with UnitedHealth in Nevada and Colorado show a new willingness by federal and state antitrust enforcers to use seldom-cited vertical merger theory. Under that theory, acquisitions of physician groups by insurers or hospitals may foreclose competition by making it more difficult or costly for rivals to obtain physician services.

“I am concerned about the state of consolidation,” Weiser said in an interview. “Healthcare costs in Colorado have risen at an alarming rate. Protecting competition needs to be a central part of our strategy to provide affordable and quality healthcare.”

These recent antitrust actions come as concerns mount over the growing consolidation of hospitals and physician practices and the impact on prices and total health spending. Sixty-five percent of metropolitan statistical areas are highly concentrated for specialist physicians, while 39% are highly concentrated for primary-care doctors, according to Martin Gaynor, a health economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Hospital acquisitions of physician practices have led to higher prices and health spending, researchers have found. Average outpatient physician prices in 2014 ranged from 35% to 63% higher, depending on physician specialty, in highly concentrated California markets compared with less-concentrated markets, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley. The link between physician market concentration and prices is similar across the country, experts say.

Market consolidation in California

That’s why some elected officials and antitrust attorneys say it’s past time to step up oversight of physician practice acquisitions by hospitals, insurers and private-equity firms. These deals traditionally have received less scrutiny than hospital and insurance mergers, partly because they are smaller transactions that federal and state antitrust enforcement agencies may not have known about beforehand.

The recent cases suggest state attorneys general may play a growing role in policing physician acquisition deals by hospitals and insurers, given that they are in a better position than the feds to find out about brewing local deals. Most of the growth in physician group size has come from piecemeal acquisitions of small group practices, a Health Affairs studyfound last year.

Washington and at least two other states have passed laws requiring healthcare providers to give state officials advance notice before finalizing a merger or acquisition. That gives state AGs another advantage over the FTC, which under federal rules only must receive advance notice of deals exceeding $78.2 million in value. Few physician acquisitions meet that threshold.

Others worry, however, that the absence of clear federal guidelines for challenging vertical mergers between hospitals and physicians has made the FTC and the courts overly cautious, and that it now may be too late because many physician markets are already highly concentrated. In March, the FTC and the Justice Department said they were working on new vertical merger guidelines, which were last updated in 1984.

“The horse may be out of the barn in a number of markets where there have been very large acquisitions of physician practices,” said Tim Greaney, a visiting professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “It’s not clear what you can do about that.”

But hospitals, insurers and other physician aggregators argue that making it harder to buy physician groups would hamper their ability to establish cost-saving, high-quality delivery models emphasizing care coordination.

That’s how Sanford Bismarck President Dr. Michael LeBeau responded to last month’s 8th Circuit ruling against his organization’s merger with Mid Dakota Clinic. “Sanford continues to believe that combining with Mid Dakota Clinic would lead to the enhanced provision of and access to healthcare for patients in central and western North Dakota,” he said in a written statement.

Researchers have raised doubts, however, about whether hospital acquisitions of medical practices have truly achieved efficiencies and cost savings, and whether any cost savings have been passed on to payers and patients.

Going forward, hospitals, insurers and other healthcare organizations need to prepare themselves for an era of closer state and federal examination of physician acquisition deals, antitrust experts agree. That also may apply to private-equity firms, which have accelerated their investment in physician groups and have sought to build market power in particular specialties.

The FTC did not respond to requests for an interview.

Healthcare organizations pursuing physician deals must be ready to cite circumstances where competition continues to thrive following a merger. But that may not be easy, conceded Lisa Gingerich, an antitrust attorney at Michael Best & Friedrich.

“The challenge now is there has been so much consolidation that it’s harder and harder to find those circumstances,” she said.

Scaling back integration in Nevada and Colorado

The UnitedHealth Group-DaVita case may present the clearest warning shot to organizations contemplating large physician acquisitions, attracting both federal and state attention.

The FTC argued that the proposed acquisition by United’s OptumCare of DaVita’s HealthCare Partners of Nevada would result in a near-monopoly controlling more than 80% of the market for services delivered by managed-care provider organizations to Medicare Advantage plans.

The merger would be both horizontal—combining OptumCare’s and DaVita’s competing physician groups—and vertical, as it would combine a Medicare Advantage insurer and a physician group. That, the FTC said, would increase costs and decrease competition on quality, services and amenities by forcing rival Medicare Advantage plans to pay more for physician services.

Under the FTC settlement, UnitedHealth agreed to sell DaVita’s Nevada medical group to Intermountain Healthcare, which offers a Medicare Advantage product in Las Vegas through its SelectHealth insurance arm.

Colorado’s terms

Meanwhile, under a separate consent judgment with Attorney General Phil Weiser in Colorado, UnitedHealth will lift its exclusive contract with Centura Health for at least 31/2 years, expanding the provider network available to other Medicare Advantage plans. In addition, DaVita Medical Group’s agreement with Humana, United’s main competitor in Colorado Springs, will be extended through at least 2020.

All four FTC commissioners approved the enforcement action in Nevada. But the two Republican-appointed commissioners and the two Democratic-appointed commissioners disagreed on whether to ask a judge to block United’s acquisition of DaVita’s medical group in Colorado, a purely vertical merger. The 2-2 split meant no federal action was taken.

The Democratic commissioners. Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, said the merger would harm competition and consumers, and welcomed the Colorado attorney general’s remedial conditions. “We hope all state attorneys general actively enforce the antitrust laws to protect their residents from harmful mergers and anticompetitive practices,” they wrote.

But the Republican commissioners, Noah Joshua Phillips and Christine Wilson, opposed action in Colorado on the grounds that the law on vertical mergers is “relatively underdeveloped” and that there was mixed evidence on whether the Colorado merger was pro- or anti-competitive.

Weiser said his office had to intervene to protect the ability of Humana and other Medicare Advantage insurers to compete with United by having access to physicians and hospitals. “State attorneys general will be a critical part of protecting competition, both because we’re close to our citizens and because of a lack of action by the federal government,” he said.

To other observers, the Nevada and Colorado agreements were notable because they invoked seldom-used vertical merger theory, which the FTC has been reluctant to use because it generally saw vertical mergers as helping reduce costs and increase competition.

“This shows that in the proper case, the FTC won’t hesitate to pursue vertical theory to reverse the course of” a physician group acquisition, said Douglas Ross, a veteran antitrust attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle.

A muddier outcome in Washington state

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s settlement of his antitrust case against CHI Franciscan was less definitive than the outcomes in the other recent cases.

He had accused the hospital system of engineering the purchase of WestSound Orthopaedics and the affiliation with the Doctors Clinic to capture a large share of orthopedists and other physicians in Kitsap County, fix prices at a higher level, and shift more services to its Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton. But the settlement left in place CHI Franciscan’s purchase of WestSound and its tight professional services agreement with the Doctors Clinic, while placing relatively modest conditions on joint contracting by the hospital system and the clinic.

Ferguson’s bargaining position was weakened by a federal District Court decision in March granting CHI Franciscan’s motion to summarily dismiss his allegation that the acquisition of WestSound reduced competition and violated antitrust law. That may be the first time since the 1990s that a defendant won summary judgment on a horizontal merger claim in an antitrust case, one expert said.

In addition, the judge required the parties to go to trial on whether the transaction between CHI Franciscan and the Doctors Clinic was a true merger, as the two organizations claimed, or whether they remained two competing provider groups. If Ferguson lost on that issue, his antitrust case would be dead because a merged entity cannot be cited for price-fixing.

The attorney general settled that claim with CHI Franciscan and the clinic by requiring a $2.5 million payment to other healthcare providers and expanding the types of value-based contracts they could participate in. But the two sides differed sharply in their characterization of the settlement.

“This was a matter where we identified anticompetitive effects and ongoing harm to consumers and saw a need to act quickly,” said Jonathan Mark, senior assistant attorney general in Washington. “We believe the remedies in the consent decree are sufficient to address the anticompetitive effects we alleged.”

For its part, CHI Franciscan said there never was any court judgment or admission that it engaged in anticompetitive conduct, noting that the settlement preserved its deals with WestSound and the Doctors Clinic. It was particularly important for hospitals all over the country that Ferguson failed to establish that a professional services agreement with a physician group constituted price-fixing, an attorney for the hospital system said.

“The AG lost this lawsuit and is now twisting the facts to match his baseless allegations,” said Cary Evans, the hospital system’s vice president for government affairs. “Had we not affiliated, the closing of the Doctors Clinic and WestSound would have resulted in less choice, decreased access, and high costs for residents.”

A classic example in North Dakota

The outcome in the North Dakota case was more conventional than the others.

There, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s preliminary injunction blocking Sanford Health’s acquisition of Mid Dakota Clinic as a horizontal merger.

That was fairly predictable because of the huge physician market share Sanford—whose physician group competed with the clinic—would capture if it completed the deal, experts said.

Sanford would control 99.8% of general surgeon services, 98.6% of pediatric services, 85.7% of adult primary-care services, and 84.6% of OB-GYN services in the Bismarck-Mandan market, the 8th Circuit panel found.

The appeals court also upheld the lower court’s finding that a competitor, Catholic Health Initiatives’ St. Alexius Health, would not be able to enter the market quickly after the merger, at least partly because it faced difficulty recruiting physicians in the Bismarck-Mandan area.

“That case really seemed like a no-brainer to me,” said Tim Greaney, a visiting professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

A key takeaway was the 8th Circuit’s rejection of Sanford’s “powerful buyer” defense. Sanford had argued that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Dakota, the state’s dominant insurer, had enough market power to resist any price increases sought by the newly merged entity.

But analysis of claims data and testimony by a Blues plan representative demonstrated that the merged provider would have the market power to force the insurer to raise prices or leave the market, the 8th Circuit panel wrote.

“If antitrust authorities see someone getting more bargaining power and being able to charge higher prices, that’s something they’ll worry about, even if the (payer) has significant bargaining power as well,” said Debbie Feinstein, a former top Federal Trade Commission official who heads Arnold & Porter’s global antitrust group.

Sanford didn’t say whether it planned to abandon the deal.