"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Unwinding anti-competition

ridenbaugh Northwest

Federal District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled today that a buyout by St. Luke’s Health System of the Saltzer Medical Group at Nampa violated anti-trust law.
The case had been brought by St. Alphonus Medical Center-Nampa. The decision followed a trial in October.

Winmill’s decision was led with a plain-language summary of analysis that runs through recent views of the economics of health care.

From that analysis:

For years, health care costs have exceeded the inflation rate. Americans spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined – a list that includes Japan, Germany, France and the U.K. – yet we lag behind many of them on quality and patient outcomes. In Idaho, the quality of our health care is outstanding, but we pay
substantially more than the national average for that quality.

Among the experts, there is a rough consensus on a solution to the cost and quality concerns nationwide. They advocate moving away from our present fee-for-service health insurance reimbursement system that rewards providers, not for keeping their patients healthy, but for billing high volumes of expensive medical procedures. A far better system would focus on maintaining a patient’s health and quality of life, rewarding successful patient outcomes and innovation, and encouraging less expensive means of providing critical medical care. Such a system would move the focus of health care back to the patient, where it belongs.

In fact, there is a broad if slow movement to such a system. It will require a major shift away from our fragmented delivery system and toward a more integrated system where primary care physicians supervise the work of a team of specialists, all committed to a common goal of improving a patient’s health.

St. Luke’s saw this major shift coming some time ago. And they are to be complimented on their foresight and vision. They started purchasing independent physician groups to assemble a team committed to practicing integrated medicine in a system where compensation depended on patient outcomes.

In Nampa, they acquired the Saltzer Medical Group. The
combined entity now includes 80% of the primary care physicians in Nampa. Its size, and the sterling reputations of Saltzer and St. Luke’s, make it the dominant provider in the Nampa area for primary care, and give it significant bargaining leverage over health insurance plans.

These circumstances prompted the Federal Trade Commission, and a group of other health care providers including St. Alphonsus and Treasure Valley Hospital, to file this lawsuit claiming that the Acquisition violated the antitrust laws. They ask the Court to unwind the deal.

The antitrust laws essentially require the Court to predict whether the deal under scrutiny will have anticompetitive effects. The Court predicts that it will. Although possibly not the intended goal of the Acquisition, it appears highly likely that health care costs will rise as the combined entity obtains a dominant market position that will enable it to (1) negotiate higher reimbursement rates from health insurance plans that will be passed on to the consumer, and (2) raise rates for ancillary services (like x-rays) to the higher hospital-billing rates.

The Acquisition was intended by St. Luke’s and Saltzer primarily to improve patient outcomes. The Court is convinced that it would have that effect if left intact, and St. Luke’s is to be applauded for its efforts to improve the delivery of health care in the Treasure Valley. But there are other ways to achieve the same effect that do not run afoul of the antitrust laws and do not run such a risk of increased costs. For all of these reasons, the Acquisition must be unwound.

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