FTC staff opposes Virginia hospital systems’ cooperative agreement

The Southwest Virginia Health Authority and State Health Commissioner should deny a cooperative agreement application submitted by Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System, according to comments submitted by staff of the FTC Bureau of Competition, Bureau of Economics, and Office of Policy Planning.

Mountain States and Wellmont are the two largest hospital systems in the border area of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, and they are the only two full-service hospital systems serving the vast majority of patients living in this area, according to the FTC staff’s comments. Together, the hospitals would purportedly hold a near-monopoly over inpatient services in the area and have significant shares in several outpatient services and physician specialty service lines.

Consequently, the FTC staff—after a year-long assessment of the proposed merger—concluded that the proposed deal “presents substantial risk of serious competitive and consumer harm in the form of higher healthcare costs, lower quality, reduced innovation, and reduced access to care.”

The hospitals proposed several commitments they claimed would control and mitigate any anticompetitive effects, including price commitments. However, these commitments would be insufficient and unlikely to mitigate the anticompetitive effects, according to testimony presented by Mark Seidman, FTC Deputy Assistant Director for the Mergers IV Division.

“[T]he price commitments described in the application are ambiguous and appear to leave the hospitals with the opportunity and incentive to obtain higher prices from health insurers,” Seidman stated. “And even if prices were successfully constrained, it would do nothing to prevent harm to quality of care, and in fact would make that harm more likely.”

It also was noted that “once a merger is consummated—whether under a cooperative agreement or otherwise—it is extremely difficult to unwind.” Consequently, approving the cooperative agreement would risk that the deal would become permanent, especially because the plan of separation submitted by the hospitals did little to alleviate the significant challenges of “unscrambling the eggs,” following the merger.