On Health Care, Dems Go From Running to Baby Steps

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Incremental measures will dominate action on the health law in a largely gridlocked Congress.

The midterm elections all but ended the Republican push to repeal the 2010 law known as Obamacare, but as a defining issue for Democrats in their takeover of the House, health care will likely remain near the top of lawmakers’ policy and political agenda.

Newly emboldened Democrats are expected to not only push legislation through the House, but use their majority control of key committees to press Trump administration officials on the implementation of the health law, Medicaid work requirements, and insurance that does not have to comply with Obamacare rules.

Both parties are looking to address issues that voters prioritized, such as lowering prescription drug prices, though different approaches by Republicans and Democrats could mean incremental changes stand a better chance of enactment than any major bill.

Early on, lawmakers may find themselves dealing with the fallout of a court ruling that could overturn the law’s mandate that health insurance cover pre-existing conditions, putting Congress on the spot in the face of widespread voter support for those protections.

All of these issues, which dominated this year’s elections, will play out against the backdrop of the next congressional and presidential contests.

“In a lot of ways, the purpose of legislation in this Congress for the Democrats is going to be to set the agenda for the 2020 election,” said Dan Mendelson, the founder of the consulting firm Avalere.

Drug prices

Lowering drug prices is a top priority for House Democrats and President Donald Trump. Leaders of both parties identified this issue last week as a possible area for bipartisanship.

But Democrats’ more ambitious plans, like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, aren’t expected to advance in the Republican Senate. Instead, issues like increasing transparency or speeding up approvals for new treatments could be ones where both parties can find agreement.

Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a contender to lead the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, is pushing a measure that would require HHS to negotiate prices for drugs covered by the Medicare Part D program. While most Democrats say they back price negotiations, there will likely be debate within the party about the details, particularly if they seem to be close to the government setting prices.

“When you start getting into anything that looks like price controls, you might get some bipartisan support for, but you also might get bipartisan support against,” said Ben Isgur, the leader of PwC’s Health Research Institute.

Democrats’ other focal points center on price-gouging for pharmaceuticals, which gained significant attention in recent years. The House Democrats’ “Better Deal” legislative agenda envisions a “price-gouging” enforcer, which would be a Senate-confirmed position to lead a new agency focused on stopping significant price increases for prescription drugs. Democrats also hope to require drug manufacturers to provide data to justify significant price increases.

Their plan would require drugmakers to justify price increases of certain amounts at least 30 days before they take effect.

Leaders in both parties have said since the election that drug pricing will be on the agenda, but have appeared skeptical of whether their efforts would yield a successful outcome.

“The jury’s out in my mind,” Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal said in a call with reporters last week. “If he is serious about taking on those pharmaceutical drug companies and ensuring that we can really get prescriptions filled for our seniors and negotiate prices for our pharmaceutical drugs the way we do for our VA, then we might have something we can work on.”

Mendelson predicted that even if a major bipartisan agreement to lower prices doesn’t advance in the next Congress, the Trump administration will keep taking steps that could eventually lower prices. Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has earned bipartisan praise for speeding new drug approvals, for instance.

The Trump administration could try to stay in command of drug pricing politics ahead of the 2020 election, he added, although Democrats will also seek to control the issue.

“There could well be significant progress over the next year or two because the administration has a lot of authority and they will use it to neutralize the issue before the 2020 election,” said Mendelson, a former Clinton administration official.

Health care law

The electrifying election-year issue of pre-existing condition protections is likely to win a House vote as Democrats seek to prove their commitment to that popular part of the law.

Both parties are bracing for a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas in a lawsuit filed by 20 state officials seeking to overturn the 2010 law. O’Connor heard oral arguments in September, although the Trump administration asked to delay a ruling until after the open enrollment period ends on Dec. 15.

If O’Connor strikes down all or part of the health care law, Democrats expect a group of state attorneys general defending the law to seek an immediate injunction and appeal the decision. Legal scholars on both sides of the aisle question the arguments of those attempting to kill the law, but the case could reach the Supreme Court.

House Democrats plan to consider a bill by Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada who won a Senate bid last week, that would allow the House to intervene in the case and defend the health law, aides say.

Across the Capitol, 10 Senate Republicans introduced a bill this summer to guarantee coverage of pre-existing conditions, which GOP aides say could be part of a response to the lawsuit.

Democrats have criticized the Senate GOP bill because it doesn’t require insurers to cover certain services for patients with pre-existing conditions. Republicans like North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who sponsored the measure, defend it.

“If they do strike down large parts of the legislation, Sen. Tillis’ bill could be one important part of a larger health care legislative effort,” said Adam Webb, a spokesman for Tillis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky declined to reveal after the election how the chamber would respond to a ruling striking down parts of the law, but called for bipartisan fixes to the health law.

A draft bipartisan stabilization bill, which has been at an impasse for nearly a year, could re-emerge in the next Congress, but it’s not clear if lawmakers can resolve a fight over abortion restrictions that blocked an agreement or how that measure could change a year later.

“The first thing we need to do is stop Republican attacks on coverage of pre-existing conditions, stop any movement toward extending these short-term plans,” Iowa Rep.-elect Cindy Axne, who defeated Rep. David Young, said in a call with reporters last week.

Top Democrats — Frank Pallone Jr.Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, and Robert C. Scott of Virginia, who are expected to chair the Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Education and Workforce committees, respectively — introduced legislation this year to shore up the health law. It would increase the size of the tax credits that help people pay their premiums and expand eligibility. It would also block Trump administration rules to expand health plans that don’t meet the 2010 law’s requirements.

Aides caution the bill could see minor changes next year based on developments since it was introduced in March and say it could be tied into a stabilization debate.

Since falling short in their efforts to overhaul the law last year, Senate Republicans pivoted to rising health care costs, a focus that will likely extend into next year. Several senators showed interest in legislation to prevent surprise medical bills, but it’s not clear what other topics could lead to bipartisan agreement, which will still be needed in the Senate even with a larger Republican majority.

Oversight

Oversight of the health care law will dominate House action on the health law in a largely gridlocked Congress. House Democrats plan to bring administration officials to Capitol Hill to explain what critics call “sabotage” of the law’s insurance exchanges.

“We’ll be looking at what they’re doing administratively to undermine the operations of the Affordable Care Act and what consequences they may have caused to literally millions of people,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer told reporters in September.

Oversight could touch on issues such as Trump’s funding cuts to outreach and advertising for the exchanges, reductions in enrollment help and the effects of repealing the law’s mandate to get coverage.

Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who is expected to lead the House Oversight Committee, will likely rev up an investigation into drug companies high prices that he has been conducting as ranking member and could bring executives in to testify before the panel.

In a post-election press conference, the presumed incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, highlighted the Energy and Commerce Committee as another “big oversight committee” that will be active.

“We do not intend to abandon or relinquish our responsibility … for accountability, for oversight and the rest,” said Pelosi. “This doesn’t mean we go looking for a fight, but it means that if we see a need to go forward, we will.”

 

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ California Here We Come

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ California Here We Come

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Health care is a big political issue, but no place more than in California. In San Francisco last week, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure upholding a ban on flavored tobacco products — over the vehement objections of the tobacco industry.

And the state’s activist attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is leading a group of Democratic officials from more than a dozen states defending the Affordable Care Act in a case filed in Texas. That is important given that the Trump administration’s Justice Department decided not to defend the law in full from charges that changes made by Congress in last year’s tax law invalidates the health law.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” are: Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Anna Maria Barry-Jester of FiveThirtyEight.com, Carrie Feibel of KQED San Francisco and Joanne Kenen of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Republicans and Democrats had been gearing up for a midterm election debate on who is responsible for higher health insurance costs. But that shifted last week to an argument over whether consumers with preexisting conditions should be guaranteed coverage following the Justice Department’s brief saying changes to the ACA invalidated those protections.
  • In California, there is widespread support among Democrats for a single-payer health system. But the term is somewhat amorphous. For some officials, it is a catch-all phrase that seems to suggest strong efforts with current programs to get the uninsured rate down to zero, while still keeping much of the current insurance system in place.
  • Becerra has filed a suit against Sutter Health, a giant in the hospital industry in Northern California, alleging that consolidation has resulted in anti-competitive pricing practices.
  • San Francisco’s adoption of a referendum to ban flavored tobacco products could lead other local governments to follow suit. The measure included not only products with flavors allegedly geared to young people, but also menthol cigarettes, which make up about 30 percent of the market.

 

California Hospital Giant Sutter Health Faces Heavy Backlash On Prices

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The state’s top cop is suing Sutter, accusing one of the nation’s biggest health systems of systematically overcharging patients and illegally driving out competition.

Cooking dinner one night in March, Mark Frizzell sliced his pinkie finger while peeling a butternut squash and couldn’t stop the bleeding.

The 51-year-old businessman headed to the emergency room at Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Sutter charged $1,555 for the 10 minutes it treated him, including $55 for a gel bandage and $487 for a tetanus shot.

“It was ridiculous,” he said. “Health insurance costs are through the roof because of things like this.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra couldn’t agree more. The state’s top cop is suing Sutter, accusing one of the nation’s biggest health systems of systematically overcharging patients and illegally driving out competition in Northern California.

For years, economists and researchers have warned of the dangers posed by large health systems across the country that are gobbling up hospitals, surgery centers and physicians’ offices — enabling them to limit competition and hike prices.

Becerra’s suit amounts to a giant test case with the potential for national repercussions. If California prevails and is able to tame prices at Northern California’s most powerful, dominant health system, regulators and politicians in other states are likely to follow.

“A major court ruling in California could be a deterrent to other hospital systems,” said Ge Bai, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who has researched hospital prices nationwide. “We’re getting to a tipping point where the nation cannot afford these out-of-control prices.”

Reflecting that sense of public desperation, Sutter faces two other major suits — from employers and consumers — which are wending their way through the courts, both alleging anticompetitive conduct and inflated pricing. Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban some contracting practices used by large health systems to corner markets.

Sutter, a nonprofit chain, is pushing back hard, denying anticompetitive behavior and accusing Becerra in court papers of a “sweeping and unprecedented effort to intrude into private contracting.” Recognizing the broader implications of the suit, both the American Hospital Association and its California counterpart asked to file amicus briefs in support of Sutter.

In his 49-page complaint, Becerra cited a recent study finding that, on average, an inpatient procedure in Northern California costs 70 percent more than one in Southern California. He said there was no justification for that difference and stopped just short of dropping an expletive to make his point.

“This is a big ‘F’ deal,” Becerra declared at his March 30 news conference to unveil the lawsuit. In an interview last week, he said, “We don’t believe it’s fair to allow consolidation to end up artificially driving up prices. … This anticompetitive behavior is not only bad for consumers, it’s bad for the state and for businesses.”

To lessen Sutter’s market power, the state’s lawsuit seeks to force Sutter to negotiate reimbursements separately for each of its hospitals — precluding an “all or nothing” approach — and to bar Sutter employees from sharing the details of those negotiations across its facilities. Becerra said Sutter has required insurers and employers to contract with its facilities systemwide or face “excessively high out-of-network rates.”

Heft In The Marketplace

Overall, Sutter has 24 hospitals, 36 surgery centers and more than 5,500 physicians in its network. The system boasts more than $12 billion in annual revenue and posted net income of $958 million last year.

The company’s heft in the marketplace is one reason why Northern California is the most expensive place in the country to have a baby, according to a 2016 report. A cesarean delivery in Sacramento, where Sutter is based, cost $27,067, nearly double what it costs in Los Angeles and New York City.

For years, doctors and consumers have also accused Sutter of cutting hospital beds and critical services in rural communities to maximize revenue. “Patients are the ones getting hurt,” said Dr. Greg Duncan, an orthopedic surgeon and former board member at Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City, Calif.

Sutter says patients across Northern California have plenty of providers to choose from and that it has held its average rate increases to health plans to less than 3 percent annually since 2012. It also says it does not require all facilities to be included in every contract — that insurers have excluded parts of its system from their networks.

As for emergency room patients like Frizzell, Sutter says its charges reflect the cost of maintaining services round-the-clock and that for some patients urgent-care centers are a less costly option.

“The California Attorney General’s lawsuit gets the facts wrong,” Sutter said in a statement. “Our integrated network of high-quality doctors and care centers aims to provide better, more efficient care — and has proven to help lower costs.”

Regulators in other states also have sought to block deals they view as potentially harmful.

In North Carolina, for instance, the state’s attorney general and treasurer both expressed concerns about a proposed merger between the University of North Carolina Health Care system and Charlotte-based Atrium Health. The two dropped their bid in March. The combined system would have had roughly $14 billion in revenue and more than 50 hospitals.

Last year, in Illinois, state and federal officials persuaded a judge to block the merger between Advocate Health Care and NorthShore University HealthSystem. The Federal Trade Commission said the new entity would have had 60 percent market share in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Still, Advocate won approval for a new deal with Wisconsin’s Aurora Health Care last month, creating a system with $11 billion in annual revenue.

Antitrust experts say states can deliver a meaningful counterpunch to health care monopolies, but they warn that these cases aren’t easy to win and it could be too little, too late in some markets.

“How do you unscramble the egg?” said Zack Cooper, an assistant professor of economics and health policy at Yale University. “There aren’t a lot of great solutions.”

A Seven-Year Investigation

California authorities took their time sounding the alarm over Sutter — a fact Sutter is now using against the state in court.

The state attorney general’s office, under the leadership of Democrat Kamala Harris, now a U.S. senator, started investigating Sutter seven years ago with a 2011 subpoena, court documents show. Sutter said the investigation appeared to go dormant in March 2015, just as Harris began ramping up her Senate campaign.

Becerra, a Democrat and former member of Congress, was appointed to replace Harris last year, took over the investigation and sued Sutter on March 29. His aggressive action comes as he prepares for a June 5 primary against three opponents.

Sutter faces a separate class-action suit in San Francisco state court, spearheaded by a health plan covering unionized grocery workers and representing more than 2,000 employer-funded health plans. The plaintiffs are seeking to recoup $700 million for alleged overcharges plus damages of $1.4 billion if Sutter is found liable for antitrust violations. Sutter also has been sued in federal court by five consumers who blame the health system for inflating their insurance premiums and copays. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow granted Becerra’s request to consolidate his case with the grocery workers’ suit, which is slated for trial in June 2019.

The judge sanctioned Sutter in November after finding that Sutter was “grossly reckless” in intentionally destroying 192 boxes of evidence that were relevant to antitrust issues. As a result, Karnow said, he will consider issuing jury instructions that are adverse to Sutter.

In a note to employees, Sutter chief executive Sarah Krevans said she deeply regretted the situation but “mistakes do happen.”

In an April 27 court filing, Sutter’s lawyers criticized the state for piggybacking onto the grocery workers’ case. “The government sat on its hands for seven years, exposing the public to the alleged anticompetitive conduct. … Rather than driving the agenda, the Attorney General seeks to ride coattails.”

Outside court, California legislators are taking aim at “all or nothing” contracting terms used by Sutter and other hospital chains. The proposed law stalled last year amid opposition from the hospital industry. But consumer and labor groups are seeking to revive it this year.

In the meantime, Frizzell said he will probably wind up at one of Sutter’s hospitals again despite his disgust over his ER bill. “Most of the hospitals here are Sutter,” he said. “It’s difficult to avoid them.”

Federal Appeals Court Puts Chill On Maryland Law To Fight Drug Price-Gouging

Federal Appeals Court Puts Chill On Maryland Law To Fight Drug Price-Gouging

States continue to battle budget-busting prices of prescription drugs. But a federal court decision could limit the weapons available to them — underscoring the challenge states face as they, in the absence of federal action, go one-on-one against the powerful drug industry.

The 2-to-1 ruling Friday by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Maryland law meant to limit “price-gouging” by makers of generic drugs. The measure was inspired by cases such as that of former Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli, who raised one generic’s price 5,000 percent after buying the company.

The law, which had been hailed as a model for other states, is one of a number of state initiatives designed to combat rapidly rising drug prices. It gave the state attorney general power to intervene if a generic or off-patent drug’s price increased by 50 percent or more in a single year.

If dissatisfied with the company’s justification, the attorney general could have filed suit in state court. Manufacturers would have faced a fine of up to $10,000 and potentially have to reverse the price hike. The generics industry was fiercely critical of the law.

“We are evaluating all options with regard to next steps,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in a statement. His office would not elaborate further.

The state could appeal to have the case heard “en banc,” meaning by the full 4th Circuit, with jurisdiction over five states.

Such appeals aren’t commonly granted, but this law could be a strong candidate, suggested Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who researches drug-price regulation.

The Friday ruling looms large as other state legislatures grapple with ever-climbing drug prices.

Similar price-gouging legislation has been introduced in at least 13 states this year, though none of those measures became law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Three other bills failed to gain passage.

The NCSL also cited the law in a March advisory for states seeking new approaches to regulating drug prices.

The court’s finding could have a chilling effect on such efforts, especially as more state legislatures wrap up business for 2018.

“A negative court ruling will put a damper or a pause on state activities,” said Richard Cauchi, NCSL’s health program director. “Unless this topic is your No. 1 priority of the year, your legislators are juggling multiple bills, multiple strategies. When bill three gets in trouble, they move to bill four.”

The appeals court held that Maryland’s law overstepped limits on how states can regulate commerce — specifically, a constitutional ban on states controlling business that takes place outside their borders. The majority ruling argues that since most generics manufacturers and drug wholesalers engage in trade outside Maryland, the state cannot control what prices they charge.

In a dissenting opinion, the panel’s third judge argued Maryland can regulate the drug prices charged within the state since the law is meant to affect only medications being sold to its own residents.

Kesselheim, in an article published last month in the journal JAMA, argued a similar point.

Regardless, striking down a law on constitutional grounds can be particularly discouraging, suggested Rachel Sachs, an associate law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who researches drug regulations.

“If it had been a rejection on vagueness grounds, that’s something you can cure with a more specific statute,” she said. “But the fact that they said this is unconstitutional poses real concern for other states.”

That’s important. While the federal government has talked a big game on bringing down drug prices, it has done little. Instead, states have taken the lead — spurred by the budget squeeze pricey prescriptions impose on their Medicaid programs and on state employee benefits packages.

But states have far fewer tools at their disposal than does Congress. Most state laws so far tackle only pieces of the problem — targeting a specific drug or particular practice, experts said.

“We’ll get more broad and better evolution on this issue if the federal government decides to take it seriously — which it hasn’t so far,” Kesselheim said.

To be fair, Maryland’s law is only one of a bevy of approaches.

Other states have focused on price transparency laws. In California, drug companies must disclose in advance if a price might increase by more than a set percent and that they justify the increase. Industry has sued to block the California law.

New York has limited what the state will pay for drugs, establishing a process to review if expensive drugs are priced out of step with their medical value.

A number of states have since 2017 passed laws regulating pharmacy benefit managers — the contractors who negotiate discounted drug coverage for insurance plans, but who rarely reveal what level of discount they actually pass on to consumers.

Experts expect that activity to continue, especially as escalating drug prices show little sign of letting up.

“The states are going to keep trying and experimenting,” Sachs added. “This is a problem that isn’t going away.”

Even efforts such as Maryland’s — which targeted price-gouging — will likely remain at the forefront.

“I don’t think this is the end of states trying to do something on price-gouging,” said Ellen Albritton, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning advocacy group Families USA who consults with states on drug-pricing policy. “It’s such an issue that offends people’s sensibilities. It’s crazy people can do this.”

 

 

 

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:

 

 

State of California files suit against Sutter Health over antitrust allegations

https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2018/03/30/state-files-antitrust-suit-against-sutter-health.html

Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento

The State of California on Friday filed an antitrust suit against Sutter Health, accusing the Sacramento-based health system of practices that have driven up the cost of care in Northern California.

Sutter is accused of preventing insurance companies from negotiating with the health system on anything but an all-or-nothing basis, which requires insurers to contract with the entire health system, and not just parts of it. The lawsuit also alleges the health system has prevented insurance companies from offering low-cost health plan options and set excessively high out-of-network rates, while restricting the publication of provider cost information for patients’ review.

A Los Angeles Times analysis of medical care costs, which is referenced in the lawsuit, found that hospitals in Northern California’s six most populous counties collect about 56 percent more revenue per patient per day from insurance companies and patients compared to hospitals in Southern California’s six largest counties.

At a news conference this morning, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the investigation has been in the works for about six years, prompted by complaints from patients and employers about high medical care costs in Northern California.

“It’s time to hold health care corporations accountable,” Becerra said at the news conference. “If we do nothing, it will continue to happen.”

The state attorney general’s office said in a statement that the “excess profits” Sutter took in from its allegedly illegal conduct was put toward “waves of acquisitions, extreme levels of executive compensation and financing its own insurance arm.”

“Much of the increased cost of health care in Northern California is attributable to Sutter and its anticompetitive contractual practices which it has imposed as a result of its market power,” the complaint against Sutter states. “Specifically, Sutter embarked on an intentional, and successful, strategy of 
securing market power in certain local markets in Northern California.”

The lawsuit seeks to enjoin Sutter from continuing its allegedly illegal contracting practices, including all-or-nothing contract negotiations and so-called price-secrecy terms. The lawsuit also seeks to “restore competition” by requiring Sutter to stagger its negotiations between its providers of inpatient services, outpatient services and affiliated physician groups that refer patients to non-Sutter hospitals.

The lawsuit also seeks to stop Sutter from transferring money earned by its health care providers to finance its health plan, Sutter Health Plus.

“We are aware that a complaint was filed, but we have not seen it at this time, so we cannot comment on specific claims,” said Karen Garner, a spokeswoman for Sutter, in an emailed statement. “It’s important to note that publicly available data (from the OSHPD) show that on average, total charges for an inpatient stay in a Sutter hospital are lower than what other Northern CA hospitals charge.” The OSHPD is the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

 

Why DOJ must block the Cigna-Express Scripts merger

http://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/380522-why-doj-must-block-the-cigna-express-scripts-merger

Why DOJ must block the Cigna-Express Scripts merger

If one message is becoming clear, it’s that increased concentration is harming consumers and leading to less competition, decreased choice and higher cost. The need for corporations to compete is dampened when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Worse, when consumers don’t have the ability to discipline markets there is a lack of transparency or accountability.

Nowhere is that more true than in the market for Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) — the unregulated entities that control the reimbursement of drugs. These little known, unregulated middlemen are able to ramp up the cost of drugs by demanding rebates and other payments from drug manufacturersand because of a lack of transparency and choice they are able to pocket much of these rebates, escalating the cost of drugs.

The Council of Economic Advisors, after a comprehensive review of rising drug costs, identified the lack of PBM competition as a major culprit. It found that only three PBMs controlled more than 85 percent of the market, “which allows them to exercise undue market power against manufacturers and against the health plans and beneficiaries they are supposed to be representing, thus generating outsized profits for themselves.”

The effect of market power on rebates and other payments to PBMs is clear. As one study found pharmaceutical manufacturer rebates skyrocketed 108 percent from 2011 to 2016 — rising from $66 billion to $127 billion in those five years.

Do skyrocketing rebates benefit consumers? Not much. As Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has observed, “this thicket of negotiated discounts makes it impossible to recognize and reward value, and too often generates profits for middlemen rather than savings for patients.” Consumers pay more because their copays are based on list prices that are inflated by the rebates and other payments secured by the PBMs.

You do not need a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that the market is not competitive and that consumers are paying more than they otherwise would. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb observed, “Kabuki drug-pricing constructs — constructs that obscure profit taking across the supply chain that drives up costs; that expose consumers to high out of pocket spending; and that actively discourage competition.”

Gottlieb identifies the lack of PBM competition and transparency as the real culprit. “The consolidation and market concentration make the rebating and contracting schemes all that more pernicious. And the very complexity and opacity of these schemes help to conceal their corrosion on our system — and their impact on patients.”

Now the two largest PBMs seek to merge with two insurance giants — CVS Caremark’s proposed acquisition of Aetna and Cigna’s proposed acquisition of Express Scripts. I have already observed how the CVS deal will harm competition and consumers. Adding another deal is like fighting a fire with gasoline.

These mergers rightly face tough scrutiny before the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. As the American Antitrust Institute’s recent comprehensive white paper documents in detail, these mergers significantly threaten competition in health insurance, pharmacy and PBM markets and must be blocked.

And as Rep. Rick Crawford’s (R-Ariz.) recent letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposing the CVS/Aetna merger nicely emphasizes, such “vertical integration does not encourage competition or lower prices, but rather, could limit the choices and access for patients, driving out competitors while driving up prices and reimbursements for themselves.”

The reasons are straightforward and compelling. Many insurance companies want the service of an independent PBM — one not aligned with a rival insurance company. PBM services and the ability to control pharmaceutical costs are a crucial input for any insurance company, especially since the costs of drugs is an increasing part of the costs that need to be controlled.

Such reforms would include meaningful transparency and disclosure of rebates to payers, eliminating pharmacy gag clauses that prevent pharmacists from disclosing lower priced drugs, preventing PBMs from egregious reimbursement practices that force pharmacists to dispense below cost, and proper disclosure of pricing to pharmacists. As a basic first step both Express Scripts and Cigna must commit to pass through rebates to lower consumer costs as UnitedHealthcare has done.

But even these commitments are probably not enough. History tells a dismal story — past mergers have harmed consumers through less choice and higher costs as PBM profits have soared. No promises of good conduct can overcome the excessive concentration in the PBM market. The CEA recommended, “policies to decrease concentration in the PBM market … can increase competition and further reduce the price of drugs.” DOJ can begin this process by preventing the market from getting worse and simply blocking these mergers.