The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“Antitrust Division”) released their respective year-end reviews highlighted by aggressive enforcement in the health care industry. The FTC, in particular, indicated that 47% of its enforcement actions during calendar year 2016 took place in the health care industry (including pharmaceuticals and medical devices). Of note were successful challenges to hospital mergers in Pennsylvania (Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Pinnacle Health System), and Illinois (Advocate Health Care Network and North Shore University Health System). In both actions, the FTC was able to convince the court that the merger would likely substantially lessen competition for the provision of general acute-care hospital services in relevant areas in violation of section 7 of the Clayton Act. See FTC v. Penn State Hershey Med. Center, 838 F. 3d 327 (3d Cir. 2016); and FTC v. Advocate Health Care Network et al No. 1:15-cv-11473, 2017 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 37707 (N.D. Ill.Mar. 16, 2017)

The Antitrust Division, in similar fashion, touted its actions to block the mergers of Aetna and Humana, and Anthem and Cigna. Complaints against both mergers were filed simultaneously in July of 2016, and tried before different judges in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. After extensive trials, Judge Bates blocked the Aetna/Humana deal, and Judge Amy Berman Jackson blocked the Anthem/Cigna transaction. United States v. Aetna Inc., No. 1:16-cv-1494, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8490 (D.D.C. Jan 23, 2017) and United States v. Anthem Inc., No. 1:16-cv-01493, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23614 (D.D.C. Feb8, 2017).

In addition to their enforcement activities, the agencies promoted jointly issued policy guidelines, including their “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals.” Although not specific to any industry, this guidance has particular relevance to the health care industry. Among other things, this guidance makes clear that naked wage-fixing (such as the wave of wage fixing claims relating to nurses) and no-poaching agreements (that would include agreements not to hire competing physicians) are not only per se illegal, but also subject to criminal prosecution.

While a marginal enforcement shift may be in store as a result of the change in administration, most signs point to a continued focus on the health care industry. Maureen K. Ohlhausen, appointed by President Trump as acting Chair of the FTC, reiterated in a speech recently delivered at the spring meeting of the American Bar Association’s antitrust section, that “[i]t’s extremely important we continue our enforcement in the health care space.” Likewise the Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition – Abbott (Tad) Lipsky, appointed by Chairman Ohlhausen, applauded the FTC’s success in challenging the Advocate/Northshore Hospital merger noting, in a related FTC press release, that the “merger would likely have reduced the quality, and increased the cost, of health care for residents of the North Shore area of Chicago.”

Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s selection (awaiting confirmation) to head the Antitrust Division, recently lobbied on behalf of Anthem and its efforts to acquire Cigna, and has openly stated with respect to certain announced mergers, that size alone does not create an antitrust problem. Nevertheless, given the political climate and overall impact the health care industry has on the U.S. economy, the Antitrust Division’s efforts to open markets in the health care sector, particularly to generics and new medical technologies by challenging pay for delay deals and scrutinizing unnecessarily restrictive agreements among medical device manufacturers is likely to continue.

A wild card affecting future antitrust enforcement is increasing possibility of passage of the Standard Merger and Acquisitions Review Through Equal Rights Act of 2017 (H.R. 659 a/k/a the “SMARTER ACT”). This bill, recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee, would eliminate the FTC’s administrative adjudication process as it relates to merger enforcement, forcing the FTC to bring all such actions in court. In addition, it would align current preliminary injunction standards such that both the FTC and DOJ would face the same thresholds required of the Clayton Act rather than the more lenient standard under the FTC Act. A similar bill passed the House in 2016, but was not taken up by the Senate.

On March 15, 2017, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion that sheds insight on how courts view the “writing” requirement of various exceptions under the federal physician self-referral law (or “Stark Law”). The ruling involved the FCA qui tam case, United States ex rel. Emanuele v. Medicor Assocs., No. 1:10-cv-245, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36593 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 15, 2017), involving a cardiology practice (Medicor Associates, Inc.) and the Hamot Medical Center. The Court’s detailed discussion of the Stark Law in its summary judgment opinion provides guidance as to what may or may not constitute a “collection of documents” for purposes of satisfying a Stark Law exception.

This opinion is of particular note because it marks the first time that a physician arrangement has been analyzed since the Stark Law was most recently amended in November 2015, at which time the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) clarified and codified its longstanding interpretation of when the writing requirement is satisfied under various exceptions.

Arrangements Established by a “Collection of Documents”

Both the “professional services arrangement” and “fair market value” exceptions were potentially applicable, and require that the arrangement be “in writing” and signed. However, two of the medical directorships were not reduced to a formal written agreement. The Defendants identified the following collection of documents as evidence that the writing requirement was satisfied:

  • Emails regarding a general initiative between Hamot and Medicor for cardiac services, but without any specific information regarding directorship positions, duties or compensation.
  • Letter correspondence between Hamot and Medicor discussing the potential establishment of a director position for the women’s cardiac program.
  • Internal summary that identified a Medicor physician as the director of the women’s cardiac program.
  • Unsigned draft Agreement for Medical Supervision and Direction of the Women’s Cardiac Services Program.
  • A one page letter appointing a Medicor physician as the CV Chair and identifying a three-year term that expired June 30, 2008.

The Court said that although “these kinds of documents may generally be considered in determining whether the writing requirement is satisfied, it is essential that the documents outline, at an absolute minimum, identifiable services, a timeframe, and a rate of compensation.” (emphasis added). In addition, the Court noted that CMS requires that at least one of the documents in the collection be signed by each party. After confirming that these “critical” terms were missing from the documents described above, the Court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that either arrangement was set forth in writing in order to satisfy Stark’s fair market value exception or personal service arrangement exception.

Expired Arrangements

Other directorships were initially memorialized in signed, formal written contracts, but they all terminated pursuant to their terms on December 31, 2006 and were not formally extended or renewed in writing on or prior to their termination. Thereafter, Medicor continued to provide services and Hamot continued to make payments under the agreements. The parties eventually executed a series of “addendums” to extend the term of each arrangement, although these addenda had a prior effective date. During the timeframe between when the agreements expired and when the addenda were executed, invoices were continuously submitted and paid.

Plaintiff argued that the failure to execute timely written extensions in advance of renewals resulted in a failure of all six arrangements to meet the “writing” requirement under a relevant Stark Law exception. The Court disagreed, explaining that there is no requirement that the “writing” be a single formal agreement and CMS has provided guidance as to the type of collection of documents that could be considered when determining if the writing requirement is met at the time of the physician referral. In this case, the Defendants specifically relied upon the invoices from Medicor to Hamot and the checks that were sent in payment thereof.

In deciding that a reasonable jury could find that there was a sufficient collection of documents, the Court denied Plaintiff/Relator’s motion for summary judgment with respect to these six ‘expiring” directorships, and the case will proceed to trial on these claims.

Hospitals should carefully consider this opinion when auditing Stark Law compliance of their physician arrangements. A more detailed article analyzing this case will be published in the July edition of Compliance Today.