Today, the AAI released the second part of its new White Paper series on Competition in the Delivery and Payment of Healthcare Services. Part II of this important and comprehensive analysis addresses “Promoting Competition in Healthcare Enforcement and Policy: Framing an Active Competition Agenda. The White Papers are co-authored by two of AAI’s Advisory Board competition experts: Thomas Greaney, Visiting Professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law and Chester A. Myers Professor Emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law; and Barak Richman, the Edgar P. & Elizabeth C. Bartlett Professor of Law and Business Administration at Duke University.
The policy community, albeit belatedly, now fully recognizes the economic dangers of highly concentrated healthcare markets. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and states continue to closely scrutinize hospital mergers. Recent successes by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in challenging mergers of health insurers are additional indications of invigorated enforcement in the healthcare payment sector. In addition, the FTC, DOJ, and State Attorneys General (AGs) have appropriately dedicated substantial resources to healthcare antitrust enforcement and have achieved significant victories in litigation.
Traditional merger review, however, will be inadequate to compensate for the policy failures of the past. In large part because failed antitrust interventions, overwhelmed enforcers, or mistaken beliefs that market dynamics or negotiated settlements will preserve market competition, both provider and insurer markets across the country are highly concentrated, and dominant providers currently enjoy enormous pricing power. To create the market dynamics that consumers desire, policymakers will need to pursue proactive approaches in healthcare markets that confront extant market power and aim to limit its damage. It will also require exploring innovative paths to stimulate lost or impeded competition. Over the past several years, the FTC has enhanced its advisory and advocacy efforts on healthcare competition issues in numerous forums, and its leadership will need to continue exploring its influence outside its traditional purview.
Antitrust policy, like many other policy areas, will have to be farsighted and proactive to maintain and enhance sorely needed competition in healthcare markets. While traditional antitrust measures can prevent the agglomeration of additional harmful market power, less traditional and more creative policies are necessary to police the harmful market power many healthcare entities have already amassed. Federal and state entities should therefore pursue an active competition agenda by deploying sufficient resources to both prevent the consummation of additional anticompetitive consolidation that enhances or entrenches monopoly power and to pursue multipronged policies to facilitate efficient, competitive markets in healthcare markets. These issues are complicated by the healthcare sector’s long history of state and federal regulatory interventions that impede rivalry, discourage entry and innovation, and advance professional and corporate interests over those of consumers, but they also present multiple opportunities to correct problematic policies and inject competition into previously insulated markets.
In addition, responsibilities and opportunities to promote pro-competition policies must stretch beyond traditional antitrust enforcers, as regulators across government have the capacity to promote competition in healthcare markets. Close attention to regulatory interventions is also important because the distinction between public and private healthcare is vanishing. Government-financed health services, including Medicare and Medicaid, are increasingly relying on privately managed care to provide services. Without robustly competitive markets, these changes will not achieve the goals of controlling costs and improving quality. Likewise, proposals to replace Medicare’s guaranteed benefits with premium support payments, block grant Medicaid, or force downward budgetary pressures on national healthcare spending are also highly dependent on competition between providers and between insurers.
Part I of the AAI White Paper series Competition in the Delivery and Payment of Healthcare Services provided an in-depth examination of the competition concerns and priorities in provider and insurer consolidation—both horizontal and vertical–that is sweeping the industry. Part II of the AAI White Paper Series advances the discussion to identify and define the policy responses needed to address extant market power and prospective issues raised by consolidated markets. These issues include employing antitrust and other measures to stem monopolistic provider practices, encouraging federal agencies to advocate in correcting anticompetitive state policies, and seeking alternative strategies to promote competition in healthcare provider and payer markets. We emphasize a growing need for advocacy in state policymaking, payment reform, and transparency, including issues such as scrutiny of state medical boards, state efforts to improve price and quality transparency, and encouraging precompetitive policies at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The final section concludes with policy recommendations.
America has chosen, wisely we think, to rely on competition to spur innovation, assure quality of care, and control costs in the healthcare sector. Where markets have been allowed to function under competitive conditions—free of anticompetitive regulations, cartels, and monopolies—competition has done its job. Much of the revolutionary change occurring today is designed to improve the function of healthcare markets and deal with problems of market failure and excessive regulation. In many areas however, problems persist. Many markets remain controlled by monopolies, constrained by outdated regulation, and foreclosed to new entrants and ideas from anticompetitive strategies from incumbents. We therefore believe the role of the federal antitrust agencies in making healthcare policy is a vital one, and they should be given the fullest support by Congress, the Executive branch and the States. In light of these observations, we offer a number of takeaways from the analysis that would help frame an active competition policy agenda that complements vigorous antitrust enforcement in healthcare. These include:
- Traditional antitrust measures can prevent the agglomeration of additional harmful market power. However, less traditional and more creative, farsighted, and proactive policies are necessary to police the harmful market power many healthcare entities have already amassed.
- COPA proceedings are unlikely to ascertain when consolidations will generate benefits that outweigh costs to competition. Given the weighty evidence that provider consolidations impose significant economic harm, COPA’s frequently amount to evasions of needed FTC scrutiny.
- To mitigate the anticompetitive consequences of bundling monopolized and unmonopolized hospital services, antitrust enforcers ought to require hospitals and other provider entities to unbundle, at a purchaser’s request, certain services so that the purchaser can negotiate prices. This offers a promising, proactive remedial approach to hospital mergers and would restore some lost competition from excessive consolidation.
- Contractual terms between providers and insurers such as MFNs and anti-steering provisions entrenches dominant providers and insurers, limiting competition and benefits to consumers. Antitrust rules can prohibit the use of such anticompetitive contractual terms and insurance regulators can bar such provisions wherever they threaten to preclude effective price competition.
- States should examine reducing barriers that prevent entry by upstart providers, from overly restrictive rules regarding facility licensure and CON. New outpatient surgery centers, retail clinics and urgent care facilities, and physicians are well positioned to offer alternatives to the traditional inpatient acute care facility.
- Insurance exchanges set up under the ACA offer a platform for effective price and quality comparisons across insurance products and are an important tool for combatting concentration in health insurance markets. While regulatory supervision is necessary in the health insurance markets, excessive regulation could undermine the viability of state insurance markets. The FTC and DOJ should monitor the development of these exchanges, help the states fine tune regulation, and encourage the promotion of pro-competitive regulatory strategies.
- The FTC and DOJ should invest in monitoring and advising state regulators regarding potential harms to competition arising from state regulations and policies. This includes advocating for liberalizing state licensure and scope-of-practice limitations. Where repeal is not feasible, states should consider clarifying standards for, and explicitly require consideration of the competitive impact of, CON determinations.
- State licensing boards dominated by market participants are prone to produce anticompetitive regulations. The FTC should take a proactive role in helping states craft regimes in which medical boards do not have inappropriate leeway without active state supervision. And because many states and Congress are considering how best to revise existing regulatory regimes, the FTC should monitor and guide how policymakers implement mechanisms to actively supervise their professional boards.
- The FTC and DOJ should monitor and support public and private initiatives to establish APCDs and similar databases that compile and disseminate healthcare quality and price data. Greater transparency in healthcare markets can enhance competition and expand informed consumer choice.
- Federal healthcare program regulation has a profound impact on competition. As such, we suggest that the Administration inaugurate an interagency health competition task force to advise CMS on policies that affect the competitiveness of provider and payer markets. The FTC and DOJ should use this task force and other opportunities to advocate and support policies affecting payment, conditions of participation, and quality measures for providers that promote entry and cost-effective delivery of care.