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Medical group deals face growing antitrust scrutiny as price worries rise

July 06, 2019 / HARRIS MEYER 

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 rulingblocking 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 won a 9th 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 pricesand 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 study found last year.

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Chris J. Stewart

Chris currently serves as Chief Operating Officer at Ortho Spine Partners. Prior to that, he was the assistant vice president and business unit leader of Medical Device Management for HealthTrust.

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