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Annual European Competition Review 2019

McDermott’s Annual European Competition Review summarizes key developments in European competition rules. During the previous year, several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission. There were also many interesting cases decided by the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union. All these new rules and judicial decisions may be relevant for your company and your day-to-day practice.

In our super-connected age, we can be inundated by information from numerous sources and it is difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this review is to help general counsel and their teams to be aware of the essential updates.

This review was prepared by the Firm’s European Competition Team in Brussels and Paris. Throughout 2019 they have monitored legal developments and drafted the summary reports.

Access the full report.




California Attorney General Announces Historic $575 Million Settlement of Antitrust Suit Against Sutter Health

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (AG Becerra) announced on Friday, December 20, 2019, the terms of a comprehensive settlement agreement reached with Sutter Health (Sutter), the largest hospital system in Northern California.

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FTC Ratchets up Scrutiny on Pharmaceutical Deals

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • Recent developments indicate that pharmaceutical deals are attracting greater scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • In September 2019, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons reportedly stated that the FTC will more closely scrutinize deals with overlaps involving products that are still in clinical study or development. Because of the high failure rate of products in early phases of study, the FTC typically has focused on overlaps between marketed products or products near Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval, g., products in Phase III of the FDA pipeline. Chairman Simons’s statement makes clear that the FTC plans to examine earlier stage products while reviewing deals.
  • In 2018, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition announced in a speech that the FTC would favor divestitures of marketed drugs over pipeline drugs in pharmaceutical deals. Traditionally, when the FTC has had a concern about overlapping products, it has allowed the merging parties to decide which of the overlapping products to divest to remedy the concern. The director explained that, unlike marketed products, pipeline products may be costly to transfer or never be brought to market, eliminating a potential source of future competition.
  • Legislators on Capitol Hill have placed pressure on the FTC to scrutinize pharmaceutical deals with more vigor. Nine US senators wrote the FTC in September to voice concerns about the effect of pharmaceutical deals on innovation and prices. In their letter, the senators specifically highlighted divestitures of pipeline products, stating that such divestitures may not sufficiently address threats to competition because pipeline products may never make it to market.

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The Latest: Health Care Transactions Will Require Advance Notice to Washington State AG

What Happened:

  • On May 7, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State signed House Bill 1607 into law. The law goes into effect for transactions closing after January 1, 2020, and requires advance notice to the Washington Attorney General (AG) of certain transactions 60 days in advance of closing the transaction. The intent of the law is “to ensure that competition beneficial to consumers in health care markets across Washington remains vigorous and robust[.]”
  • Parties must file written notice with the AG for any deal that involves two or more hospitals, hospital systems, or other provider organizations that represent seven or more health care providers in contracting with insurance companies or third-party administrators. A “provider” includes a physician, nurse, medical assistant, therapist, midwife, athletic trainer, home care aide, massage therapist, among others.
    • The law can apply to transactions involving very small medical groups, as long as there are seven providers who contract with insurance providers. The law can also apply to transactions with non-Washington parties if the out-of-state party generates $10 million or more in revenue from Washington patients.
  • Given the relatively low thresholds for an AG filing, this law would require notifications for transactions that are not reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR Act), as well as those that are reportable under the HSR Act.
    • If a transaction is HSR reportable, the parties must submit their HSR filing to the AG.
    • If a transaction is not HSR reportable, parties must submit the following information in writing to the AG:
      • The names and addresses of the parties;
      • The locations where health care services are provided by each party;
      • A brief description of the nature and purpose of the proposed transaction; and
      • The anticipated effective date of the transaction.
    • The notification requirement applies to mergers, acquisitions and contracting affiliations. A contracting affiliation is a “formation of a relationship between two or more entities that permits the entities to negotiate jointly with carriers or third-party administrators over rates for professional medical services” but does not include arrangements among entities under common ownership.
    • The penalty for noncompliance is $200 per day.
    • The AG has 30 days from the date of notice to submit a request to the parties for additional information. If the AG has antitrust concerns, it may serve a civil investigative demand to investigate.

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Antitrust Enforcement Update: Spotlight on Physician Transactions

At both the state and federal level, antitrust enforcement agencies continue to pursue successful challenges to physician practice transactions. This article summarizes two recent enforcement actions, as well as a new state law that requires prior notice of healthcare provider transactions. We also offer practical takeaways for providers pursuing practice acquisitions.

Access the full article.




Antitrust Litigation Update for Health Care Providers

2018 saw a significant upswing in antitrust litigation against health care providers; 27 cases were filed in 2018 versus 17 in 2017. In the latest Antitrust Update for Health Care Providers, we discuss what caused the notable rise, what kinds of cases were brought over the past two years and how they were decided, and what cases warrant particular attention in 2019.

Access the full report.




Sixth Circuit Decision Affirms Summary Judgment Against Antitrust Challenge to Hospital Joint Operating Company’s Contracting Conduct

A recent decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is important for competitors involved in joint ventures because it states what mode of antitrust analysis—the per se rule or the rule of reason—applies to the conduct of joint ventures when it is challenged as anticompetitive. The decision is also significant because the court describes some steps joint venturers can take to improve the odds that their conduct will be analyzed under the more lenient rule of reason.

Access the full article.




Federal Court Opinion Reminds Health Care Providers to Assess the Antitrust Risks of Competitor Affiliations

The Attorney General of the State of Washington (the State) scored another victory last week in its federal antitrust challenge to Franciscan Health System’s (Franciscan) affiliations with two competing physician practices, Washington v. Franciscan Health System, Case No. C17-5690 (W.D. Wa.), pending in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Specifically, the district court ruled that Franciscan cannot assert as an affirmative defense that its affiliations are legal because the competing physician practices with which it affiliated would have been financially weakened without them.

WHAT HAPPENED
  • The Washington case arises out of two transactions that Franciscan and the Franciscan Medical Group (FMG) entered with competitors in the Kitsap Peninsula immediately west of Seattle, one of which was with The Doctors Clinic (TDC), a 54-physician practice.
  • After reviewing Franciscan’s contractual relationship with TDC, the district court ruled in an Order granting the State’s Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings that the Defendants cannot assert the so-called “weakened competitor” defense. The court held that whether TDC was financially weak absent Franciscan’s affiliation can be evidence at trial under certain circumstances, but is not an affirmative defense justifying what is otherwise allegedly illegal price-fixing.
  • This decision comes on the heels of a prior decision in July 2018 in which the district court struck the defendants’ related affirmative defense that TDC was a “failing company.”
WHAT THIS MEANS
  • Together, the district court’s decisions indicate that parties entering affiliations without a complete unity of economic interests should be wary of relying on arguments or defenses that can carry greater weight in the merger context. The only way to defeat a price- or wage- fixing claim on the pleadings is to show either that 1) the parties achieved sufficient unity of economic interests to be considered one entity for antitrust purposes, or 2) the complaint did not sufficiently allege any agreement to restrain trade.
  • Health care providers should be careful to comply with the antitrust laws even in situations where the parties believe an affiliation will result in real benefits for patients, efficiencies, higher quality of care or other improvements specific to the health care industry. These factors play no role when providers have engaged in price- or wage-fixing—for example, through joint payor contracting or jointly implementing employee salaries—without having achieved a full unity of economic interests.



THE LATEST: FTC Submits Comment on FDA Guidance Aimed at Deterring Abuse of Citizen Petition Process

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) submitted comments supporting the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidance for assessing whether a pharmaceutical company petitioner is misusing the citizen petition process to delay approval of a competing drug.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • The FDA released revised draft guidance intended to discourage pharmaceutical companies from gaming the citizen petition process.
  • The FTC expressed approval of the considerations the FDA will use to determine whether a petition was submitted to delay or inhibit competition.
  • The considerations the FDA will use include:
    • The petition was submitted unreasonably long after the petitioner learned or knew about the relevant information;
    • The petitioner submitted multiple and/or serial petitions;
    • The petition was submitted close to the expiration date of a known patent or exclusivity;
    • The petition’s scientific positions were unsupported by data or information;
    • The petition was the same or substantially similar to a prior petition to which the FDA had already substantively responded;
    • The petitioner had not commented during other opportunities for input;
    • The petition requested a standard more onerous or rigorous than the standard applicable to the petitioner’s drug product; and
    • Other relevant considerations, including the petitioner’s history with the FDA.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • Each of the FTC commissioners testified during Senate confirmation hearings that scrutinizing health care and pharmaceutical companies would remain a top priority of the Commission.
  • The FTC’s support of the FDA guidance appears to be part of a broader agenda to actively pursue sham petitions and discourage attempted abuses that seek to use Noerr-Pennington immunity as a shield in an administrative setting.
    • In 2017, the FTC filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that Shire ViroPharma Inc. (Shire) violated antitrust laws through repeated use of sham petitioning.
    • Though the district court dismissed the FTC’s complaint, the FTC has lodged an appeal and appears committed to reining in alleged abuses of the citizen petition process.
    • Going forward, citizen petitions are likely to face even more scrutiny. Under the revised draft guidance, once the FDA determines that a petition was submitted primarily to delay competition, it will refer that determination to the FTC. Potentially anticompetitive petitions will now face two rounds of review by federal regulators.



THE LATEST: DOJ Announces Settlement with Carolinas Health System (Atrium Health) After Two Years of Litigation

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it and the State of North Carolina have reached a settlement with Carolinas Healthcare System / Atrium Health relating to provisions in contracts between the health system and commercial insurers that allegedly restrict payors from “steering” their enrollees to lower-cost hospitals. The settlement comes after two years of civil litigation, and serves as an important reminder to hospital systems and health insurers of DOJ’s continued interest in and enforcement against anti-steering practices.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On June 9, 2016, the DOJ and the State of North Carolina filed a complaint in the Western District of North Carolina against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, d/b/a Carolinas Healthcare System, now Atrium Health (Atrium).
  • In its complaint, DOJ accused Atrium of “using unlawful contract restrictions that prohibit commercial health insurers in the Charlotte area from offering patients financial benefits to use less-expensive health care services offered by [Atrium’s] competitors.”
  • DOJ alleged that Atrium held approximately a 50 percent share of the relevant market and was the dominant hospital system in the Charlotte area. DOJ defined the relevant product market as the sale of general acute care inpatient hospital services to insurers in the Charlotte area.
  • DOJ alleged that Atrium used market power to negotiate high rates and impose steering restrictions in contracts with insurers that restrict insurers from providing financial incentives to encourage patients to use comparable lower-cost or higher-quality providers. Such financial incentives include health plan designs that charge consumers lower out-of-pocket costs (such as copays and premiums) for using top-tier providers that offer better value, or for subscribing to a narrow network of providers.
  • Atrium also allegedly prevented insurers from offering tiered networks with hospitals that competed with Atrium in the top tiers, and imposed restrictions on insurers’ sharing of value information with consumers about the cost and quality of Atrium’s health care services compared to its competitors. These “steering restrictions” allegedly reduced competition and resulted in harm to consumers, employers, and insurers in the Charlotte area.
  • Atrium allegedly included these steering restrictions in its contracts with the four largest insurers who in turn provide coverage to more than 85 percent of commercially insured residents in the Charlotte area.
  • On March 30, 2017, the court denied Atrium’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the government met its initial pleading burden. Atrium had argued that the complaint failed to properly allege that the contract provisions actually lessened competition or lacked procompetitive effects.
  • More than a year later, on November 15, 2018, DOJ announced that the State of North Carolina and DOJ had reached a settlement with Atrium, which prohibits Atrium from continuing its practices of using alleged steering restrictions in contracts with commercial health insurers. The proposed settlement also prevents Atrium from “taking actions that would prohibit, prevent, or penalize steering by insurers in the future.” The agreement lists certain prohibitions and permissions for Atrium; for example, that Atrium [...]

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