CVS-Aetna merger approved, subject to divestiture of PDP business

The federal district court in the District of Columbia has concluded that the proposed consent judgment allowing the merger of CVS Health Corporation and Aetna, Inc. is in the public interest. The merger may go forward under the condition that CVS divest Aetna’s individual Medicare prescription drug plan (PDP) business to WellCare Health Plans, Inc. The court considered objections to the merger raised by industry, consumers, and states, and concluded that the divestiture will effectively remedy the harm to the PDP market and will not be rendered ineffective due to the proposed judgment’s failure to address effects in markets adjacent to the PDP market (U.S. v. CVS Health Corporation, September 4, 2019, Leon, R.).

In response to the proposed merger between CVS and Aetna, the United States simultaneously filed a complaint and a proposed consent judgment in 2018. Under the terms of the proposed consent judgment, CVS would divest Aetna’s individual Medicare prescription drug plan (PDP) business to WellCare Health Plans, Inc. A number of parties including members of industry, consumer groups, and state regulatory bodies (amici) opposed the proposed consent judgment and filed briefs stating their concerns. As part of its review under the Tunney Act, the court conducted a hearing with witnesses from parties and amici.

The court concluded that the proposed consent judgment is in the public interest, although it did reject the government’s assertion that the court may only consider harms alleged in the complaint. The amici briefs raised three primary objections to the merger. First, that Aetna’s divestiture to WellCare will not effectively remedy the harm to the PDP market, because the divestiture leaves the PDP market overly concentrated and WellCare will not be as strong a competitor in the PDP market as Aetna was. On this point, the court found the evidence from CVS and the Government to be more persuasive. That evidence included testimony that the PDP market is already highly competitive, because plans can be easily compared, and the market is only moderately concentrated. The moderate concentration in the PDP market has neither prevented WellCare from competing in the market, nor prevented price competition from driving premium prices down, in recent years.

Amici also argued that the proposed final judgment’s failure to address effects in markets adjacent to the PDP market will undercut the effectiveness of the divestiture remedy and harm the public. For example, CVS could raise the price of its pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) services when selling the services to health insurance competitors. Such an action could threaten the success of the proposed divestiture remedy because WellCare, which both competes against CVS in the PDP market and contracts with CVS for PBM services, would be vulnerable to such a tactic. But CVS presented more persuasive evidence that substantially undermines this theory. Rival PBMs try to underbid CVS and CVS’s PBM oftentimes competes against its own customers because health insurance companies can move PBM services in house if they consider CVS’s price for contract services too high. That evidence strongly suggests that, if CVS were to raise its PBM prices, customers like WellCare could simply switch to a less expensive PBM or stop contracting for those PBM services altogether.

Finally, amici argued that the proposed final judgment without modification will harm HIV and AIDS patients in need of affordable, quality healthcare. But the court concluded that the record did not establish that the judgment will likely result in CVS gaining the ability to steer patients away from their current healthcare providers (such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation). The Foundation uses a different PBM and maintains its own pharmacies, therefore it is unlikely that CVS will be likely to steer patients away from the Foundation.

In the Department of Justice press release announcing the settlement, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Antitrust Division expressed pleasure with the decision, noting that the judgment provides a “comprehensive remedy” that “protects seniors and other vulnerable customers of individual PDPs from the anticompetitive effects that would have occurred if CVS and Aetna had merged their individual PDP businesses.”

American Antitrust Institute (AAI) statement. “AAI strongly disagrees with the merits of the court’s opinion,” said AAI President Diana Moss. “On most points, the court simply accepted piecemeal evidence introduced by the DOJ and CVS. The opinion discounts the showing by amici that the remedy will fail to preserve competition in PDP markets and that the merger raises significant vertical concerns ignored by the DOJ in its complaint. The opinion’s statement that ‘[N]otwithstanding CVS’s significant market share, the evidence showed that CVS must compete vigorously to retain its PBM customers’ is divorced from sound economics.”

Kusserow on Compliance: DOJ Policy for continued antitrust enforcement DOJ

At the American Bar Association’s Anti-Trust in Healthcare Conference, Deputy Attorney General Barry Nigro provided a wide ranging presentation regarding DOJ efforts to combat rising health care fraud. He noted that, in 2016, health care spending in the United States accounted for $3.3 trillion, or $10,348 per person—approximately 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At this level of spending, the economy can ill afford fraudulent activity to increase the cost of health care. Inasmuch as health care involves critical care, it means the DOJ is giving it a higher priority. DOJ is continuing to give this area a priority that includes rigorous investigation and prosecution of those engaged in Medicare provider fraud and price gouging by drug makers. The DOJ will carry on with questioning mergers and potential collusion among health systems and payers. This includes market allocation agreements, price fixing, and naked market allocation. Some of the topical areas covered in his address included the following:

  1. Criminal prosecutions related to price fixing and market allocation agreements
  2. Parties circumventing generic drug regulations
  3. Market allocation and no-poach agreements
  4. Limitations on exemptions and immunities from anti-trust laws
  5. Continued reliance on the Clayton Antitrust Act
  6. Urging states to consider negative effect on competition when passing laws
  7. Support for certificate of need provisions
  8. Urging states to consider laws that impose occupational licensing requirements
  9. Professionals being able to advertise receiving board certification to patients

 

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Anthem, Cigna call off merger, maybe mooting pending SCOTUS petition

After the Delaware Court of Chancery denied Anthem, Inc.’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented Cigna Corporation from terminating a merger agreement entered into between the two insurance giants two years ago but beset by legal challenges—including a lawsuit by the United States on antitrust grounds—Anthem finally agreed to terminate the agreement. Cigna, which stopped defending the agreement during the trial, which resulted in a holding that the agreement would harm the public (see Swan song for Anthem’s acquisition of Cigna?, Health Law Daily, February 9, 2017), reiterated its belief that Anthem breached its obligations under the agreement and therefore owes it a $1.85 billion reverse termination fee. Anthem believes that Cigna was first in breach, and is not entitled to the fee. The dueling announcements came one week after Anthem filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Circuit Court’s affirmation of the District Court’s decision (see Injunction barring Anthem’s acquisition of Cigna upheld, Health Law Daily, May 1, 2017).

A brief history of recent failed mergers. In 2015, proposed mergers were announced between four of the five largest health insurance companies in the United States. In addition to Anthem’s proposed acquisition of Cigna, Aetna Inc. attempted to purchase Humana Inc., and the subject quickly came under scrutiny (see To merge or not to merge, that was the question before a Senate subcommittee, Health Law Daily, September 24, 2015). While the companies indicated that the proposed acquisitions were in response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), concerns about the resultant impact on the Medicare Advantage (MA) program were raised, in addition to concerns about stifling competition and slowing innovations. In July 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits to prevent the two transactions, and the idea that Anthem and Cigna were not necessarily on the same page about the acquisition came to light as Cigna appeared less-than-enthusiastic about fighting the DOJ (see DOJ lawsuit steps in between Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna mergers, Health Law Daily, July 21, 2016). Humana and Aetna terminated their pending merger agreement after the D.C. District Court halted that transaction (see Tale of two mergers: Cigna-Anthem goes South; Humana, Aetna drop plans, Health Law Daily, February 15, 2017; Aetna, Humana plan separate futures after dissolving merger plans, Health Law Daily, February 14, 2017; Aetna’s $47 billion purchase of Humana enjoined, Health Law Daily, January 23, 2017).

Anthem’s fights continue. Although Anthem agreed to terminate the merger with Cigna, the legal battle between the two companies will likely continue. In addition to the imminent fight over the reverse termination fee, Anthem’s writ for certiorari remains pending before the Court (No. 16-1342). The petition presented the question whether a 1967 Supreme Court antitrust decision “forecloses consideration of efficiencies in merger analysis,” and, if not, “whether and how a court must weigh [efficiencies] as part of a determination of net competitive effect.” According to the petition, there is a circuit split on the issue. The petition, however, may be determined moot because there is no longer an active case or controversy; it is unlikely that the Court will take up the question because the issue is capable of repetition, and not evading review.

Insurance antitrust exemption reform clears House

The House passed on March 22, 2017, H.R. 372, The Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2017, with a bipartisan vote of 416 to 7. The Act repeals in part the McCarran-Ferguson Act antitrust exemption for insurers, including price fixing, bid rigging, and market allocation, and retains the exemption for certain collaborative activities. A CBO report projected that the Act would have no significant net effect on the premiums that private insurers would charge for health or dental insurance and that any effect on federal revenue would be negligible.

The report noted that health insurance premiums could be lower to the extent that enacting the bill would prevent insurers from engaging in practices currently exempted from antitrust law. On the other hand, insurers could become subject to additional litigation and thus their costs and premiums might increase. The CBO estimated that both of those effects would be small.

The American Hospital Association had expressed concerns about the abuse of market power by large commercial insurers with the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services previously.