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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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FTC and Pennsylvania Attorney General Challenge Health System Combination

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Pennsylvania Attorney General (AG) have challenged the proposed combination of The Penn State Hershey Medical Center (Hershey) and PinnacleHealth System (Pinnacle) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The FTC complaint alleges that the combination would create a dominant provider, reduce the number of competing health systems in the area from three to two, and result in a 64 percent share of the market for general acute care inpatient hospital services.

Hospitals and health systems pursuing mergers with a competitor should be mindful of the antitrust enforcement climate in health care and incorporate antitrust due diligence into their early transaction planning. Moreover, this case highlights that providers seeking to proactively alleviate the potential anticompetitive effects of a transaction should anticipate continued skepticism by the FTC of claims of procompetitive efficiencies and its dismissal of the merging parties’ newly negotiated, post-closing pricing agreements with payors.

Summary of Administrative Complaint

Parties and Transaction

Hershey is a nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles west of Harrisburg. The system has two hospitals in the Harrisburg area: the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, an academic medical center affiliated with the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, and the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, the only children’s hospital in the Harrisburg area.  Hershey has 551 licensed beds and employs 804 physicians offering the full range of general acute care services.  In its 2014 fiscal year, Hersey generated $1.4 billion in revenue and discharged approximately 29,000 patients.

Pinnacle is nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in Harrisburg. Pinnacle’s system includes three hospitals in the Harrisburg area: PinnacleHealth Harrisburg Hospital, PinnacleHealth Community General Osteopathic Hospital, and PinnacleHealth West Shore Hospital. The system has 662 licensed beds divided among the three hospitals. In its 2014 fiscal year, Pinnacle generated $850 million in revenue and discharged more than 35,000 patients.

Pursuant to a letter of intent executed in June 2014, the parties would create a new legal entity to become the sole member of both health systems. The parties would have equal representation on the board of directors of the new entity.

Relevant Markets

The FTC complaint alleges that the appropriate scope within which to evaluate the proposed transaction is the market for general acute care (GAC) inpatient hospital services in a four-county area around Harrisburg. This alleged product market encompasses a broad cluster of medical and surgical diagnostic and treatment services that require an overnight in-hospital stay. Although the effect on competition could be analyzed for each affected medical procedure or treatment, the FTC considered the cluster of services as a whole because it considers the services to be “offered to patients under similar competitive conditions, by similar market participants.”

The FTC limited the geographic market to an area which includes Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry and Lebanon Counties. These four counties, according to the FTC, are “the area in which consumers can practicably find alternative providers of [GAC services].” Consequently, hospitals located outside of this area [...]

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Court Orders Divestiture of Consummated Physician Practice Acquisition

In a challenge brought both by private plaintiffs and the government, a court has ruled that a health system’s acquisition of a competing physician group practice violated the antitrust laws where the transaction resulted in the health system employing 80 percent of the primary care physicians in one area.  Hospitals and health systems pursuing physician practice mergers should carefully consider the implications of this decision on proposed acquisitions and should incorporate antitrust due diligence into their transaction planning.

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