DOJ Atrium Antitrust Litigation & Proposed Settlement Signal Potential Antitrust Risks For Health Plans, Providers Involved In Managed Care Contracts Restricting Steering, Other Competition

Self-insured employer and union sponsored health plans, health insurers and other health care payers, health care providers, managed care and practice management service providers and others structuring or working with preferred provider or other managed health care contracts should weigh the potential implications on their health plan provider agreements and managed care practices of the antitrust lawsuit  jointly brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and the North Carolina Attorney General against North Carolina’s largest healthcare system, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority d/b/a Atrium Health (“Atrium”) which challenges steering restrictions and other contractual protections of Atrium against competition from other contracted health care providers.

Court documents filed by the Justice Department with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina on November 15, 2018, seek Court approval of a Joint Stipulation and Final Judgment (“Consent Decree”), which if approved by the Court, will resolve a civil antitrust lawsuit challenging Atrium’s practice of requiring and enforcing “steering restrictions” in its managed care provider agreements with commercial insurers, self-insured employer and union health plans and other private payer that prohibit the payers from steering patients to, or sharing information about other potentially more cost-effective competitor hospitals, physicians or other health care providers filed by the Justice Department in June, 2016.  While the emphasis by the Justice Department of the market dominance of Atrium in the factual allegations contained in its complaint raise questions about whether the Justice Department would undertake similar litigation against less market dominant providers, the charges made by the Justice Department in its complaint and the agreement by Atrium to cease the challenged conduct nevertheless raise a substantial basis for concern by other health care providers and payers about their own potential antitrust risks from negotiating to include, including or enforcing a wide range of provider steering and other contractual provisions commonly included in many preferred provider contracts between health plans, insurers and their managed care organizations and the health care providers that contract to be participating providers for their health plan narrow network or other managed care provider panels.

It should be noted that steering, and commitments to steer and not to steer patients to various providers are a longstanding and key component of the structure of most preferred provider contracts used in the managed care industry.  Steering refers to practices payers historically use to offer or encourage patients and other health care consumers to access care from health care providers that the payer perceives as a more cost effective provider.  Historically, insurers promised to steer patients to health care providers contracting to become “preferred providers” to health plan members in return for health care provider’s agreement to provide care a preferred rates or in accordance with other health plan rules.  With most health care providers now participating in provider networks, however, payers increasingly want to steer members to lower cost providers within the provider network to maximize savings and place pressure on higher cost participating providers to reduce rates.  If the higher cost providers have most favored nation or other contractual safeguards like those in Atrium’s provider contracts, however, contractual barriers obstruct these efforts by payers.  The insurers in Atrium used antitrust complaints filed with the Justice Department to attack these contractual barriers.

Formerly known as Carolinas HealthCare System, the dominant health care provider in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, and one of the largest not-for-profit healthcare systems in the United States, Atrium provides healthcare services throughout the Carolinas, including in hospitals, freestanding emergency departments, urgent care centers, physician practices, outpatient surgery centers, imaging centers, nursing homes, and laboratories.   Atrium’s flagship facility is Carolinas Medical Center, the largest hospital in North Carolina. Atrium also operates eight other general acute-care hospitals in the Charlotte area and owns, manages, or has strategic affiliations with more than 40 hospitals in the Carolinas.

The Justice Department complaint filed on June 9, 2016 charges that Atrium violated federal antitrust law by using its dominant market power to force commercial payers to agree to include various steering and transparency restrictions in their managed care contracts with Atrium in a manner that illegally restricts competition in violation of federal antitrust laws. The challenged provisions include a series of promises historically included in many provider agreements such as provisions requiring that the private payer:

  • To steer plan members to participating providers;
  • Not to steer plan members away from participating providers;
  • To include Atrium providers in any new networks or preferential treatment afforded to any other contracting provider in new or all plans, products, networks and preferred provider classifications; and
  • Not to exclude from and/or to provide the provider with the right to receive any new preferences or rewards for being a preferred provider.

Although provider contracts historically have included many of these same provisions, the Justice Department in its lawsuit against Atrium charged that Atrium illegally used its dominant market position to negotiate managed care contracts paying higher reimbursement rates than other less dominant contracted providers received and used the challenged contract provisions to insulate itself against competition from other network providers offer care at more cost effective rates.  The Justice Department contends the challenged provisions allow Atrium to continue to charge higher prices free from effective competition from other health care providers by prohibiting the private payers from steering patients to other health care providers and guaranteeing Atrium the most preferential treatment available even if its rates are not competitive with those of other providers enjoying the same status.  In its Atrium complaint, the Justice Department asserts that Atrium’s steering restrictions harm payers and consumers in violation of federal antitrust laws by obstructing the ability of insurers to design health benefit plans that give patients financial incentives to choose more cost-effective hospitals and physicians. The Justice Department contends these actions by Atrium force health insurers not to encourage consumers to choose other healthcare providers that offer better overall value and from providing consumers and employers with information regarding the cost and quality of alternative health benefit plan.

More than two years after the Justice Department commenced the lawsuit, court documents filed with the Court by the Justice Department on November 15, 2018 reflect the parties now have agreed to settle the lawsuit.  The Justice Department filed an unopposed motion that asks to enter a Consent Decree implementing the terms of a settlement which would preclude Atrium from seeking to negotiate or enforce a wide range of steering and transparency restrictions in existing or future preferred provider agreements. While Atrium would not pay any damages under the proposed Consent Degree, the proposed Consent Decree would:

  • Prohibit Atrium from seeking to negotiate, include or enforce steering or transparency restrictions in its provider agreements with private payers or otherwise seeking contract terms or taking actions that would prohibit, prevent, or penalize payers for steering or sharing information to promote transparency in the future in any Narrow Network Benefit Plan, Tiered Network Benefit Plan, or any Benefit Plan with Reference-Based Pricing or a Center of Excellence as a component in the Charlotte area; and
  • Void or restrict Atrium from enforcing certain specific existing steering and transparency restrictions in Atrium’s existing preferred provider agreements with various commercial insurers identified in exhibits to the Consent Decree except with respect to certain “carve out networks.”

If approved in its current form, the Consent Decree will both void a host of existing contractual safeguards currently included in Atrium’s existing provider contracts and affirmatively prohibit Atrium from seeking seek or enforce other safeguards insulating it from competition from other lower cost health care providers by defining “penalties” broadly to include any contract term or action with the likely effect of significantly restraining steering through steered plans or transparency under the facts and circumstances considering the contract provision or action; its economic impact; and the extent to which the contract provision or action has potential or actual procompetitive effects in the Charlotte Area.

Special rules applicable to Department of Justice antitrust settlements under the Tunney Act require the Justice Department to publish the proposed settlement to be implemented by the Consent Decree and the Department’s competitive impact statement in the Federal Register and allow a public comment period of 60 days before the court can approve the Consent Decree. Any person may submit written comments concerning the proposed settlement during a 60-day comment period to Peter J. Mucchetti, Chief, Healthcare and Consumer Products Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 450 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 4100, Washington, D.C. 20530.  After the comment period closes, the Court will consider the motion taking into account the comments and other factors it determines appropriate.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina likely will approve the proposed consent decree upon finding that it serves the public interest.

Because the contractual provisions challenged as anti-competitive in the Atrium litigation are of a nature widely used within the managed care industry, health care providers, health insurers, self-insured employer and union health plans and their sponsors and others involved in the managed care industry should weigh the potential implications of the Atrium litigation and its anticipated resolution on their own provider contracting strategies and practices as well as those of their competitors.

Contractual provisions like those challenged in the Atrium litigation are widely used throughout the managed care industry.  Steerage of patients to the participating provider and associated competitive protections historically has been the primary inducements and considerations that providers receive in return for agreeing to accept payer rates and other rules for a health care provider to qualify for inclusion on the payer’s provider panel.  Consequently, provider contracts between payers and participating providers commonly include steering, transparency or other restrictions similar in function if not form to those contested in the Atrium litigation. Moreover, promises regarding steering are not limited to provider agreements between payers and providers.  Insurers, preferred provider organizations and other managed care organization typically require employer, union or other health plan sponsors of health plans with preferred provider or other managed care features contractually to commit to design their health plans to incorporate features that steer plan members to use preferred providers and prohibit plan members from taking advantage of potentially lower cash or other rates that a participating provider might offer to patients choosing to circumvent the provider network to access care.  Since the Atrium litigation raises questions about potential challenges to the enforceability and legality of similar steering and contractual provisions insulating contracted providers from competition health care providers and payers with or negotiating preferred provider contracts that contain anti-steering or other contractual provisions like those challenged in the Atrium litigation and the self-insured group health plans that contract to access provider networks using these contracts should weigh carefully the potential risks of participating in contractors or seeking to negotiate or enforce these provisions taking into account their own specific facts and circumstances and the current guidance within qualified legal counsel within the scope of attorney-client privilege.

While some might be tempted to assume from Atrium’s market dominance that the Atrium challenge and litigation challenges apply only to provider agreements involving providers with substantial market dominance in their region, this is not necessarily the case.  Broader existing antitrust precedent concerning restraints on competition arguably provide some grounds for concern that the Justice Department or private litigants might seek to leverage the antitrust challenges raised in the Atrium litigation to challenge Atrium-like steering restrictions, most favored nation status and other similar clauses in preferred provider and other managed care agreements involving health care providers or others with a much smaller market share.  Likewise, it remains whether evidence showing the insurer, rather than the provider, originally proposed the questioned provision could impact the risk or render the contracts more defensible.

Despite these and other questions about the extent to which the challenges raised to the Atrium contracts will be asserted, much less successfully litigated with respect to provider protections contained in other preferred provider agreements, those negotiating or involved in preferred provider agreements containing similar provisions should consider and monitor the potential risks and weigh their options for mitigating these risks.  Among other things, it is important to keep in mind that antitrust violations carry potential civil and in some cases, even criminal violations, for participating or conspiring to participate in prohibited anticompetitive arrangements.  Thus both payers and providers participating or contemplating participating in contracts or negotiation to interject the challenged provisions into their own provider agreements should weigh their actions carefully.  Moreover, even when only civilly prosecuted, potential civil damages and defense costs often are substantial.  Accordingly, while the Justice Department prosecution of Atrium was civil, rather than criminal in nature and the agreed upon Judgement presented to the Court to end the litigation does not require Atrium to pay any monetary damages, future plaintiffs should not assume that they would similarly avoid such damages in the event their own practices are successfully challenged.  Consequently, health care providers, as well as health insurers, employer and union health plans and other private sector payers, and others participating in the negotiation or administration of, or competing in market regions with preferred provider agreements containing steering restrictions or other contractual provisions similar in form or function to those challenged in the Atrium litigation should seek specific legal advice about the potential implications of antitrust challenges raised in the Atrium Judgement on their practices and market situation and options for mitigating those risks.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of managed care and other health industry, health and other benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer has been continuously involved the design, regulation, administration and defense of managed care and other health care and health benefit arrangements, contracts, systems, and processes throughout her career.  In addition to her extensive provider and payer contracting work, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her knowledge, experience and leadership on health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;  managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers and their management; public and private, domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, health care accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; managed care organizations, insurers, third party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations; group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; claims, billing and other health care and insurance technology and data service organizations; other health, employee benefit, insurance and financial services product and solutions consultants, developers and vendors; and other health, employee benefit, insurance, technology, government and other management clients.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompassess advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Beyond her public policy and regulatory affairs involvement, Ms. Stamer also has extensive experience helping these and other clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government; accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, and change management; workforce and operations management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of their operations.

As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer throughout her career regularly has worked with health care providers and payers, employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce managed care and other contracts, benefit plans and insurance arrangements, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; vendors, supplier, and patient and member relations and requirements; deal with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA, state insurance law and other private payer rules and requirements; contracting; licensing; terms of participation; medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, and other provider-payer relations; reporting and disclosure, government investigations and enforcement, privacy and data security; and other compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; HIPAA administrative simplification, meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology, data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA, HEDIS and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care; internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; 1557 and other Civil Rights; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

Ms. Stamer also has extensive health care reimbursement and insurance experience advising and defending plan sponsors, administrators, insurance and managed care organizations, health care providers, payers, and others about Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare and Medicaid Advantage, Tri-Care, self-insured group, association, individual and employer and association group and other health benefit programs and coverages including but not limited to advising public and private payers about coverage and program design and documentation, advising and defending providers, payers and systems and billing services entities about systems and process design, audits, and other processes; provider credentialing, and contracting; providers and payer billing, reimbursement, claims audits, denials and appeals, coverage coordination, reporting, direct contracting, False Claims Act, Medicare & Medicaid, ERISA, state Prompt Pay, out-of-network and other nonpar insured, and other health care claims, prepayment, post-payment and other coverage, claims denials, appeals, billing and fraud investigations and actions and other reimbursement and payment related investigation, enforcement, litigation and actions. Scribe for the ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with HHS OCR, she also has worked extensively on health and health benefit coding, billing and claims, meaningful use and EMR, billing and reimbursement, quality measurement and reimbursement, HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, trade secret, physician and other medical, workforce, consumer financial and other data confidentiality and privacy, federal and state data security, data breach and mitigation, and other information privacy and data security concerns.

Author of leading works on a multitude of health care, health plan and other health industry matters, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, past ABA JCEB Council Representative and CLE and Marketing Committee Chair, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer’s health industry clients include public health organizations; public and private hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and other health care facilities; physicians, physician practices, medical staff, and other provider organizations; skilled nursing, long term care, assisted living, home health, ambulatory surgery, dialysis, telemedicine, DME, Pharma, clinics, and other health care providers; billing, management and other administrative services organizations; insured, self-insured, association and other health plans; PPOs, HMOs and other managed care organizations, insurance, claims administration, utilization management, and other health care payers; public and private peer review, quality assurance, accreditation and licensing; technology and other outsourcing; healthcare clearinghouse and other data; research; public and private social and community organizations; real estate, technology, clinical pathways, and other developers; investors, banks and financial institutions; audit, accounting, law firm; consulting; document management and recordkeeping, business associates, vendors, and service providers and other professional and other health industry organizations; academic medicine; trade associations; legislative and other law making bodies and others.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about contracting, credentialing and quality assurance,  compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, privacy and data security, and other risk management and operational matters. Author of works on Payer and Provider Contracting and many other managed care concerns, Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; a ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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