Antitrust laws could limit efforts to control prices

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama and several major interest groups announced that they'd be able to cut $2 trillion off of the growth in healthcare spending over the next decade. That sounds great--but as it turns out, there's legal as well as operational challenges in getting this done.

The problem, attorneys say, is that if doctors, hospitals, health plans and pharmaceutical companies work together closely enough to reduce prices, they face very substantial risks of being accused of antitrust violations. One former official with the Federal Trade Commission notes that even an agreement on a price maximum could raise legal issues.

In theory, this means that President Obama should offer specific, targeted exceptions to antitrust scrutiny. However, to date he's done the opposite. At least as a candidate, he said that consumers had fared badly due to inadequate enforcement of antitrust law in health insurance markets, and vowed to step up enforcement if elected.

Trade associations, including the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association, have already asked for relief from antitrust rules, arguing that it would benefit everyone if their members could work more closely together. Physicians, for example, want more freedom to negotiate collectively with health plans. However, the FTC doesn't seem inclined to assist.

To learn more about this issues:
- read this piece in The New York Times

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