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Healthcare Antitrust Enforcement Outlook with Former DoJ Antitrust Prosecutor and Strike Force District Leader

A revitalized focus on antitrust in healthcare has increased healthcare companies’ concerns about their compliance status. On this episode of In the Trenches, Brian Stimson, McDermott partner and former Acting General Counsel and Principal Deputy General Counsel for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Antitrust partner Justin Murphy, former trial lawyer in the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, connect for an overview of healthcare antitrust enforcement issues and proactive steps companies need to take in order to remain compliant. Brian and Justin discuss:

  • The focus of DOJ’s Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and the “red flags of collusion”
  • DOJ’s use of data analytics
  • The top two industries facing increased antitrust enforcement attention, cases to watch and practical steps for companies under investigation
  • The role of a computer hacking and intellectual property (CHIP) prosecutor
  • The value of experienced defense counsel in antitrust investigations
  • Recommended steps for healthcare organizations to assess their procurement protocols and other compliance programs

To listen to the full podcast, please click here.




Crisis & Compliance: EU Competition Law During COVID-19

Amid the economic shocks caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, many industries are facing reduced demand for their products and services. Other industries—notably healthcare and food—are adjusting rapidly to expanding demand requirements and changing consumption patterns due to large-scale population confinement in several countries. Significant over- or under-capacity can create incentives, or even the necessity, to collaborate in ways that may push the limits of antitrust and competition rules.

On 23 March 2020, the European Competition Network (ECN) took unprecedented action. ECN, the network of competition enforcement authorities in the European Union, issued a joint statement announcing that its members will not actively intervene against “necessary and temporary” measures, including cooperation among competitors, in order to avoid a “shortage of supply.” At the same time, the ECN cautioned that its members would actively intervene against any measures taken by companies to limit the supply or charge excessive prices for critical products, such as masks or hand sanitising gel. This joint statement followed steps taken by several competition authorities in Europe to signal relaxed antitrust treatment of certain types of collaboration.

This article provides an overview of how companies can navigate these rapidly evolving developments in line with EU competition law. In brief, competition rules still apply, but are sufficiently flexible to allow critical industry adjustments during economic shocks that cannot be addressed in the short term by market forces, which are currently in turmoil.

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THE LATEST: DOJ Price-Fixing Probe Demonstrates That Deal Risk Is Not the Only Antitrust Concern Merging Parties Should Keep in Mind

Bumble Bee Foods, and two of its senior vice presidents, have recently pled guilty to US Department of Justice (DOJ) charges that they engaged in a conspiracy to fix prices of shelf-stable tuna fish sold in the United States from 2011 to 2013. Bumble Bee agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine that can increase to $81.5 million under certain conditions, and the company’s two senior vice presidents pled guilty and agreed to pay criminal fines as well. The investigation appears to have been prompted by information that the DOJ uncovered during its investigation of Thai Union Group’s (owner of Chicken of the Sea) proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee, which was abandoned after DOJ concerns.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On December 19, 2014, Thai Union Group, the largest global producer of shelf-stable tuna, announced that it had agreed to acquire Bumble Bee Foods for $1.5 billion. A year later, on December 3, 2015, the DOJ announced that the parties had abandoned the transaction after the DOJ expressed concerns that the acquisition would harm competition. The DOJ stated that “Thai Union’s proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee would have combined the second and third largest sellers of shelf-stable tuna in the United States in a market long dominated by three major brands, as well as combined the first and second largest domestic sellers of other shelf-stable seafood products.”
  • Beyond its comments about the potential for competitive harm from the transaction, however, the DOJ further noted that “[o]ur investigation convinced us – and the parties knew or should have known from the get go – that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”
  • It appears that the DOJ’s concerns that the market for packaged seafood was not functioning competitively spurred the government to proceed with an investigation into potential collusion among the suppliers of packaged seafood. After its investigation, the DOJ concluded that Bumble Bee Foods, two of its senior vice presidents, and other co-conspirators “discussed the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States[,] agreed to fix the prices of those products [and] negotiated prices and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements they reached.”
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • In the Mergers & Acquisitions context, the merging parties are most often concerned with the potential risk that antitrust concerns may pose to the deal and the ability to obtain DOJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clearance for the transaction. This criminal investigation by the DOJ demonstrates that the parties need to be aware of their conduct in the market, whether they have engaged in conduct that may be found to be collusive, and the potential consequences of such conduct [...]

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Assistant Attorney General Addresses Antitrust Remedies in First Formal Remarks

On September 25, 2013, Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer gave his first formal remarks since becoming head of the Antitrust Division at the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in January. Speaking at Georgetown Law’s Seventh Annual Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, Baer’s address was entitled “Remedies Matter: The Importance of Achieving Effective Antitrust Outcomes.”

Baer emphasized that achieving a remedy that preserves or restores competition is more important than the government winning a particular lawsuit.  He then addressed remedies in four contexts: merger remedies, civil non-merger remedies, civil disgorgement and criminal remedies.

Regarding mergers, Baer said that the DOJ “should only consider remedies that effectively resolve the competitive concerns and protect the competitive process.”  He indicated that some deals are nearly unfixable and noting that litigation is not DOJ’s preferred option, Baer warned that reaching a consent decree takes time and cautioned parties against waiting until late in an investigation to engage the DOJ in negotiations.  The proposed acquisition of Grupo Modelo by Anheuser-Busch InBev initially included a component addressing antitrust concerns, but the DOJ wanted more.  Baer used the consent decree in that matter to highlight important provisions in “an effective merger remedy:” structural relief, a fully-vetted up-front buyer, a monitoring trustee and a conveyance of intellectual property and know-how.

For civil non-merger remedies, Baer pointed to the e-books litigation involving Apple and five of the six largest publishers in the United States.  In prosecuting Apple for its role in the civil price-fixing conspiracy, DOJ was seeking a remedy “that would stamp out any lingering effects of the conspiracy,” prevent similar conduct in the future, and ensure Apple’s compliance, with “success … measured not by [DOJ’s] ability to prove the violation, but rather by the effectiveness of the remedies … obtained.”  Baer believes the final judgment accomplishes this through antitrust compliance requirements, including an external compliance monitor.

Baer said that civil disgorgement is appropriate where an offending party would have otherwise “retained the monetary benefits of its anticompetitive conduct.”  He also indicated that it would be a remedy considered in both merger and conduct cases.  Pointing to the “broader legal landscape” and what some observers see as hurdles in private antitrust cases, Baer said that the DOJ would take into account the likelihood of success in private actions when it fashions its public remedies.

For criminal remedies, Baer discussed DOJ’s prosecution of AU Optronics Corporation, its U.S. subsidiary and two top executives for a criminal price-fixing conspiracy.  The remedy included a $500 million fine, probation and an independent monitor to oversee an antitrust compliance program.

Baer appears open to developing creative remedies to achieve outcomes the agency finds most effective in “remedy[ing] anticompetitive conduct and guard[ing] against any recurrence.”  Throughout the speech he emphasized the use of external monitors (the costs of which are borne by the offending parties) and difficult remedies to “fix” past offenses, including disgorgement and unwinding consummated mergers.




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