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Expanding health systems’ pricing power tied to surging premiums and insurer withdrawals


Ashish K. Jha, M.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an internist at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, argues in a JAMA piece that the insurer withdrawals and big insurance premium increases this year are to no small degree attributable to the market power being wielded by ever larger hospital chains.

He thinks that the future of the Affordable Care Act may rest on the federal government’s ability to monitor and regulate healthcare-industry consolidation among practices, hospitals and hospital systems.

“If the ACA is to thrive under the next president, he or she must ensure that we have a dynamic healthcare marketplace,”  Dr. Jha wrote. “For that reason alone, the ability of the ACA to fulfill its promise of greater access at an affordable price will depend as much on the effectiveness of the FTC  {Federal Trade Commission} as it will on the effectiveness of the CMS.”

His remarks come as a federal appeals court decided to support the FTC’s challenge of  the proposed merger between Advocate Health Care and NorthShore University HealthSystem, both in Illinois.

The 7th Circuit Court  of Appeals called a lower court’s decision to allow the proposed merger between the two health systems “erroneously flawed.”

FTC has argued that the deal could hurt both patients and insurers and result in higher medical costs because of the new behemoth’s pricing power. The health systems have been battling with the FTC over  how their market share should be defined.

To read Dr. Jha’s JAMA piece, please hit this link.

FTC to appeal judge’s okay of big Ill. merger


The Federal Trade Commission is appealing a federal judge’s decision that denied its request that the judge block the merger of Downers Grove, Ill.-based Advocate Health Care and Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore University HealthSystem.

The merger would create a health system called Advocate NorthShore Health Partners, with 16 hospitals, more than 4,000 hospital beds and 45,000 employees and serving more than 3 million patients annually.

For details, hit this link.


Judge hands FTC defeat in efforts to block big Ill. merger

U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso’s refusal  this week to block a merger between Advocate Health Care and NorthShore University HealthSystem, both in the Chicago area,  dealt a hard blow to the Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to rein in consolidation of hospitals. The decision could quickly encourage systems to merge, which could lead to considerably higher healthcare costs as the new entities wield more market power and thus are better able to negotiate with insurers.

It was unclear that the FTC would appeal.

In another  similar big case, a federal judge in Pennsylvania refused to stop t a merger between Penn State Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System in Harrisburg — a decision that the FTC is appealing.

The judge in that case said: “Our determination reflects the healthcare world as it is, and not as the FTC wishes it to be. We find it no small irony that the same federal government under which the FTC operates has created a climate {of cooperation among providers} that virtually compels institutions to seek alliances such as the hospitals intended here.”




Judge refuses to block big Pennsylvania merger


The slightly quaint Polyclinic Medical Center, in Harrisburg, Pa., part of Pinnacle Health.

U.S. District Judge John Jones III judge  has refused to temporarily block  the merger  of Penn State Hershey Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System, in a rare defeat for the Federal Trade Commission’s drive against many hospital mergers.

As Modern Healthcare has noted: “Hospitals and insurers across the country have been watching the Pennsylvania case and several others as mergers continue to proliferate. The loss comes as the FTC pursues an injunction in a hospital merger case in the Chicago area between Advocate HealthCare and NorthShore University HealthSystem. ”

“Judge  Jones rejected the FTC’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the merger between Penn State Hershey, a 508-bed, not-for-profit health system in Dauphin County, and PinnacleHealth System, a not-for-profit, three-campus system with 607 beds, also in Dauphin County. He also slammed the FTC in his opinion for its opposition to such mergers in the current healthcare environment.

“He wrote that the FTC too narrowly defined the systems’ geographic market because the agency didn’t account for the distances many of their patients travel to reach the hospitals. He also wrote that the FTC did not include enough hospitals in its definition of the market.

He found it “compelling” that the hospitals have already worked with central Pennsylvania’s two largest insurers, CBC and Highmark, to ensure that their rates wouldn’t increase following a merger. Of course, who knows what would actually happen with those rates.

‘A way around the FTC’


NorthShore University HealthSystem President and CEO Mark Neaman says that Northwestern Memorial HealthCare wants the Federal Trade Commission to win the lawsuit that the FTC brought to block the merger between Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore  and Downers Grove, Ill.-based Advocate Health Care.

Mr. Neaman delivered this news while on the witness stand April 14 in an antitrust hearing over the proposed Advocate-NorthShore merger.

Mr. Neaman testified that he met with Northwestern President and CEO Dean Harrison in late January at the Chicago Club. According to Mr. Neaman, Mr. Harrison said he wanted the FTC to prevail in its lawsuit to stop the merger because Northwestern would like  a merger with NorthShore itself.

Mr. Neaman  suggested that the FTC would probably block a potential NorthShore-Northwestern merger. “{Mr Harrison} told me not to worry about the FTC. He said Northwestern had a way to get around the FTC.”

Advocate, NorthShore cite cheap health plan in merged entity


A proposed merger between Downers Grove, Ill.-based Advocate Health Care and Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore University HealthSystem  might result in patients getting a low-cost health-insurance plan,  Crain’s Chicago Business reports.

The merged entity would include more than 4,000 hospital beds and employ more than 45,000.

Advocate and NorthShore asserted that the proposed merger, which some regulators and others have looked askance as potentially restraining trade and thus raising healthcare costs, would let the combined system create a new insurance product  to be priced at least 10 percent below the cheapest comparable plan on the market.  The proposed plan would limit access to providers in the Advocate-NorthShore system.  

The Federal Trade Commission seeks a preliminary injunction to stop the merger.

“If this merger is blocked, Chicagoland consumers will be harmed by losing the opportunity to save hundreds of dollars per individual in the network every year,” the systems asserted.

The merged entity would include more than 4,000 hospital beds and employ more than 45,000 workers.

Ill. system CEO accuses FTC of ‘gerrymandering’


Becker’s Hospital Review, citing the   Chicago Tribune, reports that Mark Neaman,  CEO of Evanston, Ill.-based NorthShore University HealthSystem,  has accused the Federal Trade Commission of “gerrymandering”.  He complains that the agency is only analyzing a little of the Chicago area’s healthcare market in its fight against NorthShore’s merger with Downer’s Grove, Ill.-based Advocate Health Care.

The FTC asserts that if NorthShore and Advocate merged they would operate a majority of the hospitals in the combined system’s  market, composed of northern Cook and southern Lake counties.

However, Mr. Neaman  asserted that  the combined entity would compete with hospitals throughout  the Chicago metro area, not just in northern Cook and southern Lake counties, and it would  only have 22 percent of inpatient beds in the six-county metro Chicago market.





Feds keep trying to lower hospital-merger wave



The Federal Trade Commission plans to block the combination of two large Illinois hospital groups,  showing that the FTC and other agencies are  increasingly concerned about the ability of very big health systems to dramatically raise prices through their domination of their markets.

Recent studies that have shown the ability and indeed enthusiasm of big hospital systems for raising  prices much more than smaller systems or freestanding hospitals have added fuel to the regulatory fire.

The FTC said  that the  proposed merger of Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s state’s largest health system, and NorthShore University HealthSystem, could create a 16-hospital behemoth that would dominate the  affluent North Shore area of Chicago.

Deborah L. Feinstein, director of the agency’s Bureau of Competition, asserted that the proposed merger would probably significantly increase the combined system’s bargaining power with health-insurance plans, “which in turn will harm consumers by bringing about higher prices and lower quality.”
The hospital groups say they plan to fight the government’s move, citing the effects of the Affordable Care Act in encouraging  coordinating services and technology.

Besides the Illinois case, the FTC just in the past three weeks has moved halt the merger of two hospitals in West Virginia and joined with Pennsylvania authorities to try to stop an agreement between Penn State Hershey Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System.

The New York Times reported that James H. Skogsbergh, Advocate’s chief executive, defended the merger plan as “good for consumers and very pro-competitive.”  asserting that because the hospitals’ market was dominated by a major insurer, — Blue Cross Blue Shield —  the systems were “price takers, not price setters.”


Ill. system’s project to track community health


Hospitals & Health Networks reports on NorthShore University HealthSystem’s pioneering project to track illnesses, such as the flu, in the broader  North Shore of Chicago community to arm clinicians with “real-time data to make more informed treatment decisions.”

The initiative had its origins when some physicians studied medication prescriptions among primary-care physicians treating patients with a fever and a cough. The findings: Prescription rates among physicians varied from 18 to 83 percent!

So, it was asked, “”What if physicians could be alerted of ‘what’s going around’ in real-time? Could this encourage more appropriate prescribing habits?”

Thus efforts were made to ” mine patient data, build algorithms and integrate information on ‘what’s going around’ directly into the health system’s EHR. ”



ABIM backs off from parts of MOC program


The American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) suspended parts of its maintenance-of-certification program and apologized ”after many internists and internal medicine subspecialists complained that it was a waste of time and money,” Modern Healthcare reported.

Indeed, some physicians have complained that the program is a money-making scheme for the organization and its  very well-compensated leadership.

The ABIM, along with the other 23 members of the American Board of Medical Specialties, ”recently changed its recertification process from one that requires an exam every 10 years to a process requiring continuous education and self-assessment,” the publican noted.

Dr. Westby Fisher, an internist and cardiologist with the NorthShore University HealthSystem,  in Evanston, Ill., denounced the ABIM in a blog post:

“The American Board of Internal Medicine deployed some chaff in an attempt to ward off a flurry of incoming Exocet missiles aimed squarely at its yearslong history of corrupt and coercive financial dealings, gross mismanagement and entirely unproven Maintenance of Certification program by saying simply, ‘We got it wrong and sincerely apologize,’ ”

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