Swimming Against the Tide: The FTC’s Misguided Antagonism to Health Care Integration

David Balto —  26 August 2014 — 2 Comments

There is a consensus in America that we need to control health care costs and improve the delivery of health care. After a long debate on health care reform and careful scrutiny of health care markets, there seems to be agreement that the unintegrated, “siloed approach” to health care is inefficient, costly, and contrary to the goal of improving care. But some antitrust enforcers — most notably the FTC — are standing in the way.

Enlightened health care providers are responding to this consensus by entering into transactions that will lead to greater clinical and financial integration, facilitating a movement from volume-based to value-based delivery of care. Any many aspects of the Affordable Care Act encourage this path to integration. Yet when the market seeks to address these critical concerns about our health care system, the FTC and some state Attorneys General take positions diametrically opposed to sound national health care policy as adopted by Congress and implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services.

To be sure, not all state antitrust enforcers stand in the way of health care reform. For example, many states including New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, seem to be willing to permit hospital mergers even in concentrated markets with an agreement for continued regulation. At the same time, however, the FTC has been aggressively challenging integration, taking the stance that hospital mergers will raise prices by giving those hospitals greater leverage in negotiations.

The distance between HHS and the FTC in DC is about 6 blocks, but in healthcare policy they seem to be are miles apart.

The FTC’s skepticism about integration is an old story. As I have discussed previously, during the last decade the agency challenged more than 30 physician collaborations even though those cases lacked any evidence that the collaborations led to higher prices. And, when physicians asked for advice on collaborations, it took the Commission on average more than 436 days to respond to those requests (about as long as it took Congress to debate and enact the Affordable Care Act).

The FTC is on a recent winning streak in challenging hospital mergers. But those were primarily simple cases with direct competition between hospitals in the same market with very high levels of concentration. The courts did not struggle long in these cases, because the competitive harm appeared straightforward.

Far more controversial is when a hospital acquires a physician practice. This type of vertical integration seems precisely what the advocates for health care reform are crying out for. The lack of integration between physicians and hospitals is a core to the problems in health care delivery. But the antitrust law is entirely solicitous of these types of vertical mergers. There has not been a vertical merger successfully challenged in the courts since 1980 – the days of reruns of the TV show Dr. Kildare. And even the supposedly pro-enforcement Obama Administration has not gone to court to challenge a vertical merger, and the Obama FTC has not even secured a merger consent under a vertical theory.

The case in which the FTC has decided to “bet the house” is its challenge to St. Luke’s Health System’s acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group in Nampa, Idaho.

St. Luke’s operates the largest hospital in Boise, and Saltzer is the largest physician practice in Nampa, roughly 20-miles away. But rather than recognizing that this was a vertical affiliation designed to integrate care and to promote a transition to a system in which the provider takes the risk of overutilization, the FTC characterized the transaction as purely horizontal – no different from the merger of two hospitals. In that manner, the FTC sought to paint concentration levels it designed to assure victory.

But back to the reasons why integration is essential. It is undisputed that provider integration is the key to improving American health care. Americans pay substantially more than any other industrialized nation for health care services, 17.2 percent of gross domestic product. Furthermore, these higher costs are not associated with better overall care or greater access for patients. As noted during the debate on the Affordable Care Act, the American health care system’s higher costs and lower quality and access are mostly associated with the usage of a fee-for-service system that pays for each individual medical service, and the “siloed approach” to medicine in which providers work autonomously and do not coordinate to improve patient outcomes.

In order to lower health care costs and improve care, many providers have sought to transform health care into a value-based, patient-centered approach. To institute such a health care initiative, medical staff, physicians, and hospitals must clinically integrate and align their financial incentives. Integrated providers utilize financial risk, share electronic records and data, and implement quality measures in order to provide the best patient care.

The most effective means of ensuring full-scale integration is through a tight affiliation, most often achieved through a merger. Unlike contractual arrangements that are costly, time-sensitive, and complicated by an outdated health care regulatory structure, integrated affiliations ensure that entities can effectively combine and promote structural change throughout the newly formed organization.

For nearly five weeks of trial in Boise St. Luke’s and the FTC fought these conflicting visions of integration and health care policy. Ultimately, the court decided the supposed Nampa primary care physician market posited by the FTC would become far more concentrated, and the merger would substantially lessen competition for “Adult Primary Care Services” by raising prices in Nampa. As such, the district court ordered an immediate divestiture.

Rarely, however, has an antitrust court expressed such anguish at its decision. The district court readily “applauded [St. Luke’s] for its efforts to improve the delivery of healthcare.” It acknowledged the positive impact the merger would have on health care within the region. The court further noted that Saltzer had attempted to coordinate with other providers via loose affiliations but had failed to reap any benefits. Due to Saltzer’s lack of integration, Saltzer physicians had limited “the number of Medicaid or uninsured patients they could accept.”

According to the district court, the combination of St. Luke’s and Saltzer would “improve the quality of medical care.” Along with utilizing the same electronic medical records system and giving the Saltzer physicians access to sophisticated quality metrics designed to improve their practices, the parties would improve care by abandoning fee-for-service payment for all employed physicians and institute population health management reimbursing the physicians via risk-based payment initiatives.

As noted by the district court, these stated efficiencies would improve patient outcomes “if left intact.” Along with improving coordination and quality of care, the merger, as noted by an amicus brief submitted by the International Center for Law & Economics and the Medicaid Defense Fund to the Ninth Circuit, has also already expanded access to Medicaid and uninsured patients by ensuring previously constrained Saltzer physicians can offer services to the most needy.

The court ultimately was not persuaded by the demonstrated procompetitive benefits. Instead, the district court relied on the FTC’s misguided arguments and determined that the stated efficiencies were not “merger-specific,” because such efficiencies could potentially be achieved via other organizational structures. The district court did not analyze the potential success of substitute structures in achieving the stated efficiencies; instead, it relied on the mere existence of alternative provider structures. As a result, as ICLE and the Medicaid Defense Fund point out:

By placing the ultimate burden of proving efficiencies on the Appellants and applying a narrow, impractical view of merger specificity, the court has wrongfully denied application of known procompetitive efficiencies. In fact, under the court’s ruling, it will be nearly impossible for merging parties to disprove all alternatives when the burden is on the merging party to oppose untested, theoretical less restrictive structural alternatives.

Notably, the district court’s divestiture order has been stayed by the Ninth Circuit. The appeal on the merits is expected to be heard some time this autumn. Along with reviewing the relevant geographic market and usage of divestiture as a remedy, the Ninth Circuit will also analyze the lower court’s analysis of the merger’s procompetitive efficiencies. For now, the stay order is a limited victory for underserved patients and the merging defendants. While such a ruling is not determinative of the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the merits, it does demonstrate that the merging parties have at least a reasonable possibility of success.

As one might imagine, the Ninth Circuit decision is of great importance to the antitrust and health care reform community. If the district court’s ruling is upheld, it could provide a deterrent to health care providers from further integrating via mergers, a precedent antithetical to the very goals of health care reform. However, if the Ninth Circuit finds the merger does not substantially lessen competition, then precompetitive vertical integration is less likely to be derailed by misapplication of the antitrust laws. The importance and impact of such a decision on American patients cannot be understated.

2 responses to Swimming Against the Tide: The FTC’s Misguided Antagonism to Health Care Integration

  1. 

    “The importance and impact of such a decision on American patients cannot be understated.”

    -and you are saying this is an important issue?

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  1. Antitrust Enforcement in Reverse: Getting Efficiencies Backwards « Truth on the Market - September 11, 2014

    […] I discussed in my last post, no one would doubt the need for greater integration between hospitals and physicians – the […]

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