ANALYSIS OF PROPOSED CONSENT ORDER TO AID PUBLIC COMMENT

The Federal Trade Commission (Commission) has accepted, subject to final approval, an agreement to a proposed consent order from Mesa County Physicians Independent Practice Association, Inc. (Mesa IPA), a physician organization in Mesa County, Colorado. The agreement would settle ongoing litigation concerning charges by the Commission that Mesa IPA has violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act by: (1) conspiring to obstruct the entry of third-party payers into Mesa County; (2) acting as the de facto exclusive bargaining agent for its physician members; (3) fixing the terms on which its members deal with payers; and (4) collectively refusing to deal with payers.

The proposed consent order has been placed on the public record for sixty (60) days for reception of comments by interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After sixty (60) days, the Commission will review the agreement and the comments received, and will decide whether it should withdraw from the agreement or make final the agreement’s proposed order.

The purpose of this analysis is to facilitate public comment on the proposed order. The analysis is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the agreement and proposed order or to modify in any way their terms. Further, the proposed consent order has been entered into for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by Mesa IPA that the law has been violated as alleged in the complaint.

The Complaint

The complaint, issued by the Commission on May 13, 1997, charges that Mesa IPA has restrained competition in the provision of physician services in the Mesa County area by fixing the prices and other terms on which its members deal with third-party payers. The allegations in the Commission’s complaint are summarized below.

Mesa IPA, an organization of more than 180 physicians, includes at least 85% of all the physicians, and at least 90% of the primary care physicians (family practitioners, general practitioners, internists, and pediatricians), in private practice in Mesa County, Colorado, an area of over 100,000 people. The IPA was formed in 1987 to protect the economic interests of Mesa County physicians in their dealings with third-party payers. Mesa IPA contracted with Rocky Mountain Health Maintenance Organization, a third-party payer based in Mesa County, whose enrollees comprise at least 50% of the total patient volume of Mesa IPA’s members. In 1993, Mesa IPA began negotiating on behalf of its members with several third-party payers seeking to enter Mesa County.

Mesa IPA operated as the de facto exclusive bargaining agent for its physician members in dealing with third-party payers. Mesa IPA encouraged its physician members not to deal individually with third-party payers, or to do so only on terms that were approved by the IPA’s Contract Review Committee. Mesa IPA’s Board of Directors approved a set of guidelines and a schedule of fee conversion factors to be used by the IPA’s Contract Review Committee in reviewing contract offers from payers. Mesa IPA’s fee conversion factors resulted in significantly higher prices for physician services being charged to several payers than would have been charged absent the agreement among the IPA’s members

Mesa IPA’s members have not integrated their medical practices so as to create efficiencies sufficient to justify their collective contract negotiations and other conduct alleged in the complaint.

As a result of Mesa IPA’s activities, a wide range of third-party payers of physician services, including preferred provider organizations, health maintenance organizations, and employer health care purchasing cooperatives, were excluded from doing business in Mesa County. Although most payers sought alternatives to Mesa IPA, they were forced either to contract with the IPA to obtain the physician services they needed to market viable plans to employers and consumers, or else to abandon their efforts to enter Mesa County. Mesa IPA’s actions have harmed consumers in Mesa County by, among other things, increasing the prices paid by consumers for physician services, depriving consumers of the benefits of competition in the purchase of physician services, and hindering the development of alternative health care financing and delivery systems in Mesa County.

The Proposed Consent Order

The proposed consent order is designed to prevent the illegal concerted action alleged in the complaint, while allowing Mesa IPA to engage in legitimate joint conduct. Paragraph II of the proposed order contains the core operative provisions. It prohibits Mesa IPA from: (1) engaging in collective negotiations on behalf of its members; (2) orchestrating concerted refusals to deal; (3) acting as an exclusive bargaining agent for its members; (4) restricting the ability of its members to deal with third-party payers and others individually or through arrangements other than Mesa IPA; (5) coordinating the terms of contracts with third-party payers with other physician groups in Mesa County or in any county contiguous to Mesa County; (6) exchanging or facilitating the exchange of information among physicians concerning the terms upon which physicians are willing to deal with third-party payers; and (7) encouraging or pressuring others to engage in any activities prohibited by the order.

Paragraph II also sets forth terms that Mesa IPA must observe, for a period of five years, if it seeks to act as an agent for individual physicians in dealings with third-party payers. Arrangements that do not involve agreements among competing providers on price or

price-related terms, sometimes referred to as a "messenger model," can facilitate contracting between physicians and third-party payers. Although messenger models can take various forms, the key in any such arrangement is that it does not create or facilitate any agreement among competitors on price or price-related terms. The order permits Mesa IPA to use a messenger model, but prescribes the manner in which Mesa IPA may structure and operate such an arrangement (should it choose to employ one). This provision is necessary to guard against collusion, especially because the IPA has incorrectly claimed that some of its prior dealings with third-party payers were based on a messenger model. Thus, the messenger model specified in the order is tailored to the particular facts and circumstances of this case.

Paragraph II includes a proviso allowing Mesa IPA to engage in conduct (including collectively determining reimbursement and other terms of contracts with payers) that is reasonably necessary to operate (a) any "qualified risk-sharing joint arrangement," or (b) provided the IPA complies with the order’s prior notification requirements, any "qualified clinically integrated joint arrangement." The proviso addresses the arrangements that the IPA may enter into, rather than the overall nature of the group, because a physician group may enter into legitimate arrangements with some third-party payers but engage in illegal conduct with respect to others. For the purposes of the order, a "qualified risk-sharing joint arrangement" must satisfy two conditions. First, it must be one in which participating physicians share substantial financial risk. The order lists ways in which physicians might share financial risk. These track the four types of financial risk sharing set forth in the Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care, issued jointly by the FTC and the Department of Justice.(1)

Second, to be a "qualified" risk-sharing arrangement, the arrangement must also be non- exclusive, both in name and in fact. An arrangement that either restricts the ability of participating physicians to contract outside the arrangement (individually or through other networks) with third-party payers, or facilitates refusals to deal outside the arrangement by participating physicians, does not fall within the proviso. Although exclusive physician joint arrangements are not necessarily anticompetitive, they can impair competition, particularly when they include a large portion of the physicians in a market. In light of Mesa IPA’s large share of the physician market, this definition does not permit the IPA to form exclusive arrangements.

A "qualified clinically integrated joint arrangement" includes arrangements in which the physicians undertake cooperative activities to achieve efficiencies in the delivery of clinical services, without necessarily sharing substantial financial risk. For purposes of the order, such arrangements are ones in which the participating physicians have a high degree of interdependence and cooperation through their use of programs to evaluate and modify their clinical practice patterns, in order to control costs and assure the quality of physician services provided through the arrangement. As with risk-sharing arrangements, the definition of clinically integrated arrangements reflects the analysis contained in the 1996 FTC/DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care. In addition, as with risk-sharing arrangements, the clinically integrated arrangement must be non-exclusive.

The definition of a clinically integrated arrangement is by necessity less precise than that of a risk-sharing arrangement. Therefore, in order for a qualified clinically integrated joint arrangement to fall within the proviso, Mesa IPA must comply with the order’s requirements for prior notification. The prior notification mechanism will allow the Commission to evaluate a specific proposed arrangement and assess its likely competitive impact, in order to help guard against the recurrence of acts and practices that have restrained competition and consumer choice.

Paragraph III requires that Mesa IPA (1) notify its members and certain third parties about the order; (2) amend its "Physician Manual" to bring the manual in compliance with the order; and (3) abolish its Contract Review Committee, which the complaint charges was one of the instruments through which the IPA orchestrated its anticompetitive activities. This paragraph also will require termination of any existing contracts with third-party payers that do not comply with Paragraph II of the order, at the earlier of the termination or renewal date of the contract, or receipt of a written request from the payer to terminate the contract. Automatic termination of such contracts is not required, in order to avoid disruption that might result from applying the order’s prohibitions to existing contractual arrangements between Mesa IPA and third-party payers. In addition, Mesa IPA must, for the next five years, distribute copies of the complaint and order to new members; annually publish to members a copy of the complaint and order; and annually brief members on the meaning and requirements of the order and the antitrust laws. These provisions are aimed at monitoring, and hence preventing, possible anticompetitive conduct.

Paragraphs IV, V, and VI consist of various reporting procedures, consistent with those found in other Commission consent orders, that are designed to assist the Commission in monitoring compliance with the order. Finally, Paragraph VII terminates the order twenty years after the date it is issued, in accordance with Commission policy.

The consent order does not require Mesa IPA to reduce its share of primary care physicians in Mesa County. Although the "Notice of Contemplated Relief" issued along with the complaint in this case included such a structural change as a possible form of relief, the Commission has determined that structural relief is not necessary given changes in the market since the Commission issued its complaint. In particular, evidence suggests that significant numbers of IPA members are now contracting with third-party payers outside Mesa IPA on competitive terms, alternatives to Mesa IPA are developing, and a number of third-party payers have been able to enter the market or expand their presence in the market. Accordingly, the Commission has concluded that a consent order governing Mesa IPA’s conduct will provide the necessary relief.


(1) Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care, issued August 28, 1996, 4 Trade Reg. Rep. (CCH) 13,153 (also available at http://www.ftc.gov).