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Federal Court Opinion Reminds Health Care Providers to Assess the Antitrust Risks of Competitor Affiliations

The Attorney General of the State of Washington (the State) scored another victory last week in its federal antitrust challenge to Franciscan Health System’s (Franciscan) affiliations with two competing physician practices, Washington v. Franciscan Health System, Case No. C17-5690 (W.D. Wa.), pending in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Specifically, the district court ruled that Franciscan cannot assert as an affirmative defense that its affiliations are legal because the competing physician practices with which it affiliated would have been financially weakened without them.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • The Washington case arises out of two transactions that Franciscan and the Franciscan Medical Group (FMG) entered with competitors in the Kitsap Peninsula immediately west of Seattle, one of which was with The Doctors Clinic (TDC), a 54-physician practice.

  • After reviewing Franciscan’s contractual relationship with TDC, the district court ruled in an Order granting the State’s Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings that the Defendants cannot assert the so-called “weakened competitor” defense. The court held that whether TDC was financially weak absent Franciscan’s affiliation can be evidence at trial under certain circumstances, but is not an affirmative defense justifying what is otherwise allegedly illegal price-fixing.

  • This decision comes on the heels of a prior decision in July 2018 in which the district court struck the defendants’ related affirmative defense that TDC was a “failing company.”

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Together, the district court’s decisions indicate that parties entering affiliations without a complete unity of economic interests should be wary of relying on arguments or defenses that can carry greater weight in the merger context. The only way to defeat a price- or wage- fixing claim on the pleadings is to show either that 1) the parties achieved sufficient unity of economic interests to be considered one entity for antitrust purposes, or 2) the complaint did not sufficiently allege any agreement to restrain trade.

  • Health care providers should be careful to comply with the antitrust laws even in situations where the parties believe an affiliation will result in real benefits for patients, efficiencies, higher quality of care or other improvements specific to the health care industry. These factors play no role when providers have engaged in price- or wage-fixing—for example, through joint payor contracting or jointly implementing employee salaries—without having achieved a full unity of economic interests.

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About this Author

Partner

Stephen Wu is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery and is based in the Firm’s Chicago office. He focuses his practice on complex litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and counseling clients on pricing and distribution issues. Stephen has represented clients in a wide variety of industries including: aerospace, biotechnology, consumer products, energy, food, and health care.

Stephen has defended clients in private litigation against federal and state antitrust and unfair competition claims, and represented...

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Katharine O'Connor Antitrust Litigation Attorney McDermott Will Emery
Partner

Katharine O’Connor focuses her practice on complex antitrust litigation, government investigations, defending mergers and acquisitions before antitrust enforcement agencies, and counseling clients on antitrust compliance issues. She has experience representing clients in a wide array of industries, including health care, manufacturing, food and finance

 

Katharine is a member of the firm’s antitrust and competition practice, which has been designated a “Global Elite” practice, one of the top 25 in the world, by Global Competition Review each year since 2013. She has been recognized by Legal 500 US and Super Lawyers as excelling in the field of antitrust.

Katharine has tried cases before juries, judges and arbitration panels, presented evidentiary hearings in federal and administrative courts, and argued before the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, federal district courts and state courts.

While in law school, Katharine was the managing articles editor of the University of Illinois Law Review and a legal extern to Magistrate Judge David G. Bernthal of the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois

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