FTC to probe impacts of state antitrust protections for local hospital mergers

Federal Trade Commission officials said they want to study the impact of certificates of public advantage and hospital consolidation on prices, quality, access, the innovation of healthcare services and employee wages. (Jer123/Shutterstock)

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued orders to five health insurance companies and two health systems seeking data to study the effects of state-level regulatory approvals known as certificates of public advantage (COPAs) that protect local hospital mergers from antitrust scrutiny.

Federal officials said they want to study the impact of COPAs and hospital consolidation on prices, quality, access, the innovation of healthcare services and employee wages.

The FTC issued orders to Aetna, Anthem, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Cigna and United Healthcare for patient-level commerical claims data. 

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Orders were also issued to Ballad Health in Tennessee and Virginia as well as Cabell Huntington Hospital in West Virginia for aggregated patient billing and discharge data, along with health system employee wage data and other information relevant for analyzing the health systems’ prices, quality, access and innovation. Both health systems were approved for COPAs last year.

Ballad Health was formed in 2018 through the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System. Under a COPA in Tennessee and a similar agreement in Virginia, officials said they agreed to serve oversight and enforceable commitments that include investing $308 million over 10 years to improve population health, expanding access to care and supporting health research and medical education.

Cabell Huntington Hospital was allowed to acquire nearby St. Mary’s Medical Center under a similar cooperative agreement with the state that was initially challenged by federal regulators.  

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Tennessee regulators describe COPAs as written approvals governing mergers among two or more hospitals that provide "state action immunity to the hospitals from state and federal antitrust laws by replacing competition with state regulation and active supervision. The goal of the COPA process is to protect the interests of the public in the region affected and the state."

However, the feds say while COPAs "purport to immunize mergers and collaborations from antitrust scrutiny under the state action doctrine," the approvals are in need of further study. As Kaiser Health News reported, the federal antitrust exemption dates back to a Supreme Court ruling in the 1940s and has been rarely used to allow hospital mergers. There has been little research (PDF) on the impacts of COPAs.

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In June, the FTC held a public workshop examining research on the price effects of three COPAs approved in the 1990s—including Benefis Health System in Montana, Palmetto Health in South Carolina and Mission Health in North Carolina—to inform the current study design. Officials said they intend to collect information over the next several years to conduct retrospective analyses of the Ballad Health and Cabell COPAs.

Once the study is complete, the FTC intends to report publicly the study’s findings and will use them to help in future advocacy and enforcement by the agency and to better inform stakeholders about COPAs. 

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