While the Trump Administration’s antitrust policy is still developing, and most believe it will provide for less enforcement than antitrust policy under the Obama Administration, the Federal Trade Commission announced on Friday, March 31, that it has no intention of letting up on the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, where the FTC has been increasingly active over the past few years. In 2016, the FTC challenged the mergers of hospitals/health systems in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and initiated actions to protect pharmaceutical price competition; early 2017 has been no different.
Thus, while the Trump Administration’s antitrust policy unfolds, and it may be less strict than the antitrust policy of the prior administration, healthcare and pharmaceutical industry participants should stay vigilant about antitrust compliance because the FTC intends to remain focused on competition in those sectors.
Having dismissed the Sherman Act Section 1 conspiracy and Section 2 monopolization claims of Suture Express in August 2013, a federal judge in Kansas, on April 11, 2016, tossed the remainder of plaintiff’s $200 million claim, which asserted that Cardinal Health and Owens & Minor, wound care companies, entered into a predatory pricing scheme to prevent hospitals from buying the plaintiff’s competing products. Suture Express, Inc., v. Cardinal Health, Inc., et al., 2:12-cv-02760.
The court determined that the summary judgment record did not demonstrate an injury to competition in the acute care market resulting from defendants’ alleged pricing arrangement, as the plaintiff failed to establish that defendants had market power. Rather, according to the court, the record on summary judgment demonstrated a competitive market, where a number of defendants’ rivals have been able to grow their businesses and compete effectively against defendants, while defendants’ market shares have remained relatively stable; in fact, the court found that defendants’ themselves competed against one another.
In dismissing the case, the court noted, as courts usually do in cases where the record demonstrates, at most, an injury only to the plaintiff, the antitrust laws were designed to protect competition not competitors, and the failure to demonstrate an injury to competition in the market is fatal to a plaintiff’s Sherman Act claims.
Although, as this case shows, antitrust defendants may have to endure lengthy and expensive litigation, experienced antitrust counsel, familiar with the deep and growing body of defense-oriented antitrust decisions, have a number of arrows in their quiver for shooting down antitrust claims.
Following an investigation, on December 14, 2015, the FTC filed a Complaint and a Decision and Order that resolved antitrust claims against 19 orthopedists in Berks County, PA, arising out of a 2011 merger of six independent physician groups in which the orthopedists practiced. Those six groups merged to form Keystone Orthopaedic Specialties (“Keystone”).
According to the Complaint, the 19 orthopedists comprised 76% of the 25 physician orthopedic physician services market in Berks County. Prior to the merger, competition among orthopedists was robust, with the 25 orthopedists in the market practicing in 11 different physician groups. The merger, however, resulted in market concentration likely well above the thresholds for presuming market power and illegality under the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index.
According to the Complaint, because of the highly concentrated market and entry barriers, health plans operating in Berks County were unable to establish networks of orthopedists for their enrollees in Berks County, and were therefore forced to pay higher rates to the Keystone orthopedists, which they passed on to their enrollees.
The Decision and Order imposes extensive multi-year restrictions on the types of joint arrangements the Keystone orthopedists and their practices may enter into going forward, prohibiting some arrangements altogether, while requiring FTC consent for others.
The lesson of Keystone is simple. Physicians practicing in independent physician groups who are contemplating a joint venture of any kind should retain antitrust counsel to advise on and resolve any antitrust issues before the arrangement is consummated in order to avoid regulator scrutiny and the potential for the severe penalties and practice restrictions that come with it.
Dental and orthodontic practices and dental laboratories around the U.S. are being represented in class actions filed this week in federal courts in Texas and New York, see, e.g., Comfort Care Family Dental, P.C. et al v. Henry Schein, Inc. et al, 1:16-cv-00282 (E.D. NY), that claim defendants Henry Schein, Inc., Patterson Companies, Inc., and Benco Dental Supply Company (“Benco”), alleged to be the dominant dental product distributors in the U.S., together controlling over 80% of the national market for the distribution of dental supplies and dental equipment, conspired to boycott competitors in that market in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.
The Comfort Care complaint asserts that Defendants’ conduct constitutes a horizontal group boycott that resulted in either a per se violation of Section 1 or a violation of the Sherman Act under the “rule of reason,” and alleges that Defendants “frequently communicated with each other at in-person meetings, via electronic mail and texts, and through phone calls” to collectively respond to new competitors and pressure dental associations as part of the group boycott. The Comfort Care complaint also provides economic information purporting to demonstrate that the alleged market is highly concentrated, has high barriers to entry, and has experienced increased pricing despite static or declining demand, all of which support the claim of anticompetitive conduct.
In addition to the private antitrust actions, as the Comfort Care complaint alleges, various state AGs and the FTC are investigating Defendants’ conduct as well, and Benco has already agreed to a consent judgment with the Texas AG pertaining to some of the conduct at issue in the private actions.
A per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, generally requires an agreement among horizontal competitors that unreasonably restrains trade. To withstand a motion to dismiss, a Section 1 plaintiff must allege facts that suggest direct of evidence of an agreement among the defendants, as opposed to alleging facts that merely are consistent with parallel conduct. These principles have been referred to by some courts as creating a heightened pleading standard for Section 1 claims.
In Arapahoe Surgery Center, LLC, et al. v. Cigna Healthcare, Inc., et al., 2015 U.S. Dist. Lexis 28375 (D. CO.), the Colorado District Court determined that the plaintiffs’ allegations of a group boycott were sufficient to meet the pleading requirements under Section 1, and therefore denied a motion to dismiss filed by three insurance carrier defendants. The specificity of the factual allegations concerning the agreement among the defendants, and the acts in furtherance thereof, underscore the importance of antitrust compliance in the healthcare and health insurance industries. Continue reading Specific Facts Suggest Hospitals and Insurers Agreed to Group Boycott
Health systems attempting to fulfill the mandate of integrating hospitals and physicians may find themselves accused of going too far. Although the Affordable Care Act, shared savings, gainsharing and other alternative payment methodologies have made integration of physicians, hospitals and other providers an operational goal, success in reaching that goal may be challenged by private antitrust actions.
In a recent Florida federal court decision, the antitrust complaint of “several of Southern Brevard County’s physicians and physicians practice groups” was held to have stated a monopolization claim against Health First, Inc. and three of its wholly-owned subsidiaries — an insurer, a hospital and a physician practice group. Essentially, by fully integrating its business, and incentivizing in-network referrals and managed care pricing, Health First became vulnerable to claims of tying, exclusive dealing, price discrimination and monopolization.
Continue reading Health System Integration and Antitrust Laws on Collision Course