Antitrust Enforcement in Reverse: Getting Efficiencies Backwards

David Balto —  11 September 2014

A century ago Congress enacted the Clayton Act, which prohibits acquisitions that may substantially lessen competition. For years, the antitrust enforcement Agencies looked at only one part of the ledger – the potential for price increases. Agencies didn’t take into account the potential efficiencies in cost savings, better products, services, and innovation. One of the major reforms of the Clinton Administration was to fully incorporate efficiencies in merger analysis, helping to develop sound enforcement standards for the 21st Century.

But the current approach of the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), especially in hospital mergers, appears to be taking a major step backwards by failing to fully consider efficiencies and arguing for legal thresholds inconsistent with sound competition policy. The FTC’s approach used primarily in hospital mergers seems uniquely misguided since there is a tremendous need for smart hospital consolidation to help bend the cost curve and improve healthcare delivery.

The FTC’s backwards analysis of efficiencies is juxtaposed in two recent hospital-physician alliances.

As I discussed in my last post, no one would doubt the need for greater integration between hospitals and physicians – the debate during the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) detailed how the current siloed approach to healthcare is the worst of all worlds, leading to escalating costs and inferior care. In FTC v. St. Luke’s Health System, Ltd., the FTC challenged Boise-based St. Luke’s acquisition of a physician practice in neighboring Nampa, Idaho.

In the case, St. Luke’s presented a compelling case for efficiencies.

As noted by the St. Luke’s court, one of the leading factors in rising healthcare costs is the use of the ineffective fee-for-service system. In their attempt to control costs and abandon fee-for-service payment, the merging parties effectively demonstrated to the court that the combined entity would offer a high level of coordinated and patient-centered care. Therefore, along with integrating electronic records and increasing access for under-privileged patients, the merged entity can also successfully manage population health and offer risk-based payment initiatives to all employed physicians. Indeed, the transaction consummated several months ago has already shown significant cost savings and consumer benefits especially for underserved patients. The court recognized

[t]he Acquisition was intended by St. Luke’s and Saltzer primarily to improve patient outcomes. The Court believes that it would have that effect if left intact.

(Appellants’ Reply Brief at 22, FTC v. St. Luke’s Health Sys., No 14-35173 (9th Cir. Sept. 2, 2014).)

But the court gave no weight to the efficiencies primarily because the FTC set forward the wrong legal roadmap.

Under the FTC’s current roadmap for efficiencies, the FTC may prove antitrust harm via predication and presumption while defendants are required to decisively prove countervailing procompetitive efficiencies. Such asymmetric burdens of proof greatly favor the FTC and eliminate a court’s ability to properly analyze the procompetitive nature of efficiencies against the supposed antitrust harm.

Moreover, the FTC basically claims that any efficiencies can only be considered “merger-specific” if the parties are able to demonstrate there are no less anticompetitive means to achieve them. It is not enough that they result directly from the merger.

In the case of St. Luke’s, the court determined the defendants’ efficiencies would “improve the quality of medical care” in Nampa, Idaho, but were not merger-specific. The court relied on the FTC’s experts to find that efficiencies such as “elimination of fee-for-service reimbursement” and the movement “to risk-based reimbursement” were not merger-specific, because other entities had potentially achieved similar efficiencies within different provider “structures.” The FTC and their experts did not indicate the success of these other models nor dispute that St. Luke’s would achieve their stated efficiencies. Instead, the mere possibility of potential, alternative structures was enough to overcome merger efficiencies purposed to “move the focus of health care back to the patient.” (The case is currently on appeal and hopefully the Ninth Circuit can correct the lower court’s error).

In contrast to the St. Luke’s case is the recent FTC advisory letter to the Norman Physician Hospital Organization (“Norman PHO”). The Norman PHO proposed a competitive collaboration serving to integrate care between the Norman Physician Association’s 280 physicians and Norman Regional Health System, the largest health system in Norman, Oklahoma. In its analysis of the Norman PHO, the FTC found that the groups could not “quantify… the likely overall efficiency benefits of its proposed program” nor “provide direct evidence of actual efficiencies or competitive effects.” Furthermore, such an arrangement had the potential to “exercise market power.” Nonetheless, the FTC permitted the collaboration. Its decision was instead decided on the basis of Norman PHO’s non-exclusive physician contracting provisions.

It seems difficult if not impossible to reconcile the FTC’s approaches in Boise and Norman. In Norman the FTC relied on only theoretical efficiencies to permit an alliance with significant market power. The FTC was more than willing to accept Norman PHO’s “potential to… generate significant efficiencies.” Such an even-handed approach concerning efficiencies was not applied in analyzing efficiencies in St. Luke’s merger.

The starting point for understanding the FTC’s misguided analysis of efficiencies in St. Luke’s and other merger cases stems from the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines (“Guidelines”).

A recent dissent by FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright outlines the problem – there are asymmetric burdens placed on the plaintiff and defendant. Using the Guidelines, FTC’s merger analysis

embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other.

Relying on the structural presumption established in United States v. Philadelphia Nat’l Bank, the FTC need only illustrate that a merger will substantially lessen competition, typically demonstrated through a showing of undue concentration in a relevant market, not actual anticompetitive effects. If this low burden is met, the burden is then shifted to the defendants to rebut the presumption of competitive harm.

As part of their defense, defendants must then prove that any proposed efficiencies are cognizable, meaning “merger-specific,” and have been “verified and do not arise from anticompetitive reductions in output or service.” Furthermore, merging parties must demonstrate “by reasonable means the likelihood and magnitude of each asserted efficiency, how and when each would be achieved…, how each would enhance the merged firm’s ability and incentive to compete, and why each would be merger-specific.”

As stated in a recent speech by FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright,

the critical lesson of the modern economic approach to mergers is that post-merger changes in pricing incentives and competitive effects are what matter.

The FTC’s merger policy “has long been dominated by a focus on only one side of the ledger—anticompetitive effects.” In other words the defendants must demonstrate efficiencies with certainty, while the government can condemn a merger based on a prediction. This asymmetric enforcement policy favors the FTC while requiring defendants meet stringent, unyielding standards.

As the ICLE amicus brief in St. Luke’s discusses, not satisfied with the asymmetric advantage, the plaintiffs in St. Luke’s attempt to “guild the lily” by claiming that efficiencies can only be considered in cases where there is a presumption of competitive harm, perhaps based solely on “first order” evidence, such as increased market shares. Of course, nothing in the law, Guidelines, or sound competition policy limits the defense in that fashion.

The court should consider efficiencies regardless of the level of economic harm. The question is whether the efficiencies will outweigh that harm. As Geoff recently pointed out:

There is no economic basis for demanding more proof of claimed efficiencies than of claimed anticompetitive harms. And the Guidelines since 1997 were (ostensibly) drafted in part precisely to ensure that efficiencies were appropriately considered by the agencies (and the courts) in their enforcement decisions.

With presumptions that strongly benefit the FTC, it is clear that efficiencies are often overlooked or ignored. From 1997-2007, FTC’s Bureau of Competition staff deliberated on a total of 342 efficiencies claims. Of the 342 efficiency claims, only 29 were accepted by FTC staff whereas 109 were rejected and 204 received “no decision.” The most common concerns among FTC staff were that stated efficiencies were not verifiable or were not merger specific.

Both “concerns” come directly from the Guidelines requiring plaintiffs provide significant and oftentimes impossible foresight and information to overcome evidentiary burdens. As former FTC Chairman Tim Muris observed

too often, the [FTC] found no cognizable efficiencies when anticompetitive effects were determined to be likely and seemed to recognize efficiency only when no adverse effects were predicted.

Thus, in situations in which the FTC believes the dominant issue is market concentration, plaintiffs’ attempts to demonstrate procompetitive reasoning are outright dismissed.

The FTC’s efficiency arguments are also not grounded in legal precedent. Courts have recognized that asymmetric burdens are inconsistent with the intent of the Act. As then D.C. Circuit Judge Clarence Thomas observed,

[i]mposing a heavy burden of production on a defendant would be particularly anomalous where … it is easy to establish a prima facie case.

Courts have recognized that efficiencies can be “speculative” or be “based on a prediction backed by sound business judgment.” And in Sherman Act cases the law places the burden on the plaintiff to demonstrate that there are less restrictive alternatives to a potentially illegal restraint – unlike the requirement applied by the FTC that the defendant prove there are no less restrictive alternatives to a merger to achieve efficiencies.

The FTC and the courts should deem worthy efficiencies wherein there is a reasonable likelihood that procompetitive effects will take place post-merger. Furthermore, the courts should not look at efficiencies inside a vacuum. In healthcare, policies and laws, such as the effects of the ACA, must be taken into account. The ACA promotes coordination among providers and incentivizes entities that can move away from fee-for-service payment. In the past, courts relying on the role of health policy in merger analysis have found that efficiencies leading to integrated medicine and “better medical care” are relevant.

In St. Luke’s the court observed that “the existing law seemed to hinder innovation and resist creative solutions” and that “flexibility and experimentation” are “two virtues that are not emphasized in the antitrust law.” Undoubtedly, the current approach to efficiencies makes it near impossible for providers to demonstrate efficiencies.

As Commissioner Wright has observed, these asymmetric evidentiary burdens

do not make economic sense and are inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare.

In the context of St. Luke’s and other healthcare provider mergers, appropriate efficiency analysis is a keystone of determining a merger’s total effects. Dismissal of efficiencies on the basis of a rigid, incorrect legal procedural structure is not aligned with current economic thinking or a sound approach to incorporate competition analysis into the drive for healthcare reform. It is time for the FTC to set efficiency analysis in the right direction.