More Aggressive Review of Hospital Mergers Needed, Says FTC Commissioner

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/strategy/more-aggressive-review-hospital-mergers-needed-says-ftc-commissioner?spMailingID=15662786&spUserID=MTg2ODM1MDE3NTU1S0&spJobID=1641165714&spReportId=MTY0MTE2NTcxNAS2

The problems include ‘a legal shield’ enjoyed by nonprofit hospitals, and the solutions include more retrospective analysis of close calls, says Rebecca Kelly Slaughter.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The FTC is prohibited from enforcing antitrust laws against nonprofits, which poses a challenge, Slaughter said.

The commission should conduct another round of retrospective study on closed healthcare mergers, she said.

Commissioners should be ‘as aggressive as possible’ moving forward to preserve healthcare competition, she added.

Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter told a liberal think tank Tuesday that antitrust regulators should take a more assertive approach to protect competitive forces among healthcare providers.

Slaughter, a Democrat appointed to the FTC by President Trump and confirmed last year, made the remarks in a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., where she took issue with what she described as “a legal shield for anticompetitive conduct” at nonprofit hospitals.

The FTC is allowed to review all hospital mergers, but it cannot enforce antitrust laws against nonprofits, including more than 45% of U.S. hospitals, she said.


“So, for example, if a non-profit hospital merger itself is not anticompetitive, but the newly merged entity engages in anticompetitive practices, the FTC is stuck on the sidelines,” Slaughter said in her prepared remarks.

“In effect, this means that all of the healthcare industry expertise that the FTC has worked for decades to, and continues to, develop cannot be deployed alongside the DOJ and state enforcers to stop anticompetitive practices by roughly half of all hospitals nationwide,” she added. “This is a significant lost opportunity.”

Slaughter called for greater scrutiny of horizontal and vertical mergers alike both in the future and in the past.

“I believe that the FTC should conduct a new round of retrospectives of healthcare provider mergers,” Slaughter said.

Studying the past has led the FTC to some of its biggest improvements in understanding market forces, as was the case with former Chairman Timothy J. Muris’ retrospective analysis of hospital mergers in the early 2000s, Slaughter said.

Moving forward, Slaughter said, the FTC should take another look at recently cleared “close-call hospital mergers” and those that were shielded from antitrust scrutiny by state laws despite posing significant concerns. This is consistent, she said, with a statement the FTC issued last fall when it decided not to challenge a proposed affiliation involving CareGroup Inc., Lahey Health System Inc., Seacoast Regional Health System, and others.

The FTC should also consider taking another look at vertical integration among healthcare providers, such as transactions involving hospitals and physician groups, she said.

“[W]e should be as aggressive as possible in challenging the mergers we encounter today, especially where the proposed consolidation involves new structural arrangements rather than traditional horizontal concerns,” Slaughter added. “It is important for parties considering mergers to know we will not shy away from challenging, for example, anticompetitive vertical organizations.”

“I am sensitive to the concern that we might lose litigation,” she added, “but our obligation is to identify the right outcome and fight for it.”

 

 

 

California attorney general sues Sutter Health for anticompetitive practices

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/regulatory/california-ag-sues-sutter-health-for-anticompetitive-practices?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkdNMU56bGxOVGRpWlRRMyIsInQiOiJOQmExNkliUVBkRFNHMGRBUFZiRG5MazRJVHJxQjFvRTl3NjVNV0pxeDlHc0dyVEhBS01HRjlcL1ZLaXFcL3hpOHVzVkxtdEpZb1BPYTc3SE82VnN3U05nejlNNEVOWUhhY2h2NThFdUluTjY1SU5zUkgxZEExRTFTemI5a3dSNkZJIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

Gavel

California’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against Sutter Health, the largest system in the northern part of the state, claiming the organization’s anticompetitive practices have driven up healthcare prices throughout the region

The charges in the lawsuit (PDF) are “not new to Sutter,” AG Xavier Becerra said at a press conference Friday afternoon. The filing follows a statewide investigation into healthcare costs that revealed wide price disparities between the northern and southern parts of the state.

“Sutter Health is throwing its weight around in the healthcare market, engaging in illegal, anticompetitive pricing that hurts California families,” Becerra said in an announcement. “Big business should not be able to throttle competition at the expense of patients.”

Sutter was able to jack up prices for care at its facilities in several ways, according to the lawsuit:

  • Forcing insurance companies to negotiate with it in an “all-or-nothing” systemwide fashion
  • Blocking payers from offering patients low-cost health plan options
  • Charging extremely high rates for out-of-network visits
  • Limiting price transparency

Karen Garner, a spokesperson for Sutter, said in a statement emailed to FierceHealthcare that the system is “aware that a complaint was filed, but we have not seen it at this time, so we cannot comment on specific claims.”

Garner said that data from the state’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development show lower prices at Sutter Health facilities compared to other providers operating in Northern California. Sutter has also kept rate increases for its health plan in “low single digits since 2012,” she said.

“It’s also important to note that healthy competition and choice exists across Northern California,” Garner said. “There are 15 major hospital systems and 142 hospitals in Northern California, including Kaiser Permanente, Dignity, Adventist, Tenet, UC and more. And health plans can elect to include or exclude parts of the Sutter Health system from their networks, and health plans have been doing so for many years.”

Multiple California employers and labor unions have taken action against the health system for anticompetitive practices prior to the AG’s involvement. Sutter came under fire late last year after it was revealed that in 2015 it destroyed 192 boxes of documents that these entities sought as evidence, which the system said was a regrettable mistake.

A California judge said there was “no good reason” for Sutter to have destroyed the documents and said the “most generous interpretation” was that the system was “grossly reckless.”

The AG’s lawsuit also alleges that in addition to driving up healthcare costs in Northern California, Sutter’s actions enriched its executives, and fueled acquisitions that led to further consolidation and funding for its own health plan.

Becerra’s office was spurred to act, according to the announcement, following the release earlier this week of a report from the University of California that detailed how much consolidation has impacted healthcare costs in the state, with northern regions especially affected.

The average cost for an inpatient stay in Northern California was $223,278, compared to an average of $131,586 in the southern regions, according to the report (PDF).

Kathleen Foote, senior assistant attorney general in California who heads the antitrust unit, said at the press conference that taking action against Sutter’s practices should lead to increased competition that benefits both price and care quality.

A video of the full press conference is embedded below: