Analysis of Agreement Containing
Consent Order to Aid Public Comment


The Federal Trade Commission has accepted, subject to final approval, an agreement with the Alaska Healthcare Network, Inc. ("AHN") containing a proposed consent order. The agreement settles charges that AHN violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 45, by facilitating or implementing agreements among its members to fix prices and other terms of dealing with payors, and to refuse to deal with payors except on collectively-determined terms. The proposed consent order has been placed on the public record for 30 days to receive comments from interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After 30 days, the Commission will review the agreement and the comments received, and will decide whether it should withdraw from the agreement or make the proposed order final.

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 AHN that it violated the law or that the facts alleged in the complaint (other than jurisdictional facts) are true.

The Complaint

The allegations in the Commission's proposed complaint are summarized below.

Respondent AHN is a non-profit corporation composed of more than 60 percent of the physicians with active medical staff privileges at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (the only private general acute care hospital in the Fairbanks area). AHN's members include almost half of the family and general practitioners, and from 70 to 100 percent of the internists, pediatricians, obstetrician-gynecologists, and general surgeons in full-time, year-round private practice in Fairbanks.

AHN has served as a vehicle for its physician members to negotiate collectively with health plans. When AHN was formed, a wide range of health plans, including PPOs, HMOs, and government health care purchasing cooperatives, were seeking to contract with Fairbanks physicians. AHN members authorized AHN's Executive Director to bargain on their behalf over the terms and conditions under which individual physicians would deal with third-party payors. AHN emphasized to its members that - as a result of its size and its members' agreement to allow AHN to bargain on their behalf - AHN would be able to bargain from a position of strength and thus avert the competition among physicians that might otherwise be introduced into the Fairbanks area by managed care plans.

From early 1997 through 1998, AHN negotiated price and other contract terms on behalf of its physician members with at least seven third-party payors. It used fee information collected from its member physicians to develop a fee schedule to use in contract negotiations. AHN told its members that its fee schedule represented members' usual fees, and that the fee schedule would be used to obtain a favorable level of reimbursement for area physicians. AHN's Board of Directors and Contracting Committee also adopted a model contract that required payors to use AHN's fee schedule and to delegate their credentialing, utilization review, and formulary management to AHN rather than operating their own programs.

AHN purported to operate as a "messenger model," under which an agent conveys payors' contract offers to individual physicians, who each make an independent decision whether to accept or reject each contract. In practice, however, AHN's Executive Director and Contracting Committee bargained with payors over payment and other terms, and refused to transmit contract offers to AHN members unless the payors agreed to AHN's terms.

AHN functioned de facto as the exclusive representative of its members. Through statements in its newsletters, documents, and other media, AHN repeatedly advised members to deal with payors only through AHN in order to obtain better prices and other terms. Some payors who were seeking to enter the Fairbanks area attempted unsuccessfully to contract with individual physicians instead of dealing with AHN: physicians told the payors that AHN handled contracting for them and for other Fairbanks physicians. Payors believed that they could not go around AHN to contract individually with physicians in Fairbanks, and thus that they had no alternative but to reach agreement with AHN or give up their planned entry into Fairbanks. In several instances, payors approached individual physicians in mass mailings, requests for proposals, or phone calls, and received no responses. This was completely unprecedented and contradicted by payors' favorable responses to RFPs in other markets, including Anchorage, Alaska, and demonstrated the unwillingness of AHN and its members to deal with an entire category of payors.

AHN reached agreement with one payor - NYLCare - in 1998, and transmitted a contract to individual AHN members for their approval. AHN's Executive Director told the members that the Contracting Committee had revised the NYLCare contract proposal in a way that was responsive to the common economic interest of all AHN members. AHN engaged six other third-party payors in protracted negotiations over price and non-price terms that often extended for more than a year with no resolution. AHN demanded that the payors use AHN's fee schedule and its model contract that required payors to delegate credentialing, quality assurance, and utilization review to AHN physicians. However, AHN had not implemented any utilization review, quality assurance, or credentialing systems, and it lacked the capacity to implement some or all of those services. AHN did not refer contract offers from any of these payors to its members. As a result of AHN's conduct, a wide range of third-party payors of physician services, including PPOs, HMOs, and employer health care purchasing cooperatives, were unable to secure physician contracts and thus were unable to do business in the Fairbanks area.

AHN did not engage in any activity that might justify collective agreements on the prices its members would accept for their services. Its actions have restrained price and other competition among physicians in the Fairbanks area and thereby harmed consumers (including third-party payors, subscribers, and their employers) by increasing the prices for physician services, delaying the development of alternative health care financing and delivery systems, and limiting competition among health plans.

The Proposed Consent Order

The proposed order is designed to prevent recurrence of the illegal concerted actions alleged in the complaint, while allowing AHN and its members to engage in legitimate joint conduct. The core prohibitions of the proposed order are contained in Paragraph II. Paragraph II.A prohibits AHN from entering into or facilitating any agreement: (1) to negotiate on behalf of any physicians with any payor or provider; (2) to deal or refuse to deal with any payor or provider; (3) regarding any term on which any physicians deal, or are willing to deal, with any payor or provider; or (4) to restrict the ability of any physician to deal with any payor or provider on an individual basis or through any other arrangement.

Paragraph II.B prohibits AHN from exchanging or facilitating the exchange of information among Fairbanks area physicians concerning: (1) negotiation with any payor or provider regarding reimbursement terms; or (2) any physician's intentions or decisions with respect to any dealings with any payor or provider. Paragraph II.C prohibits AHN from encouraging, advising, or pressuring any person, other than the government, to engage in any action that would be prohibited if the person were subject to the order.

Paragraph II contains two provisos. The first proviso permits respondent to engage in conduct that is approved and supervised by the State of Alaska, so long as that conduct is exempt from liability under the federal antitrust laws under the state action doctrine. That doctrine protects private conduct that is both: (1) in accordance with a clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed state policy to supplant competition; and (2) actively supervised by the state itself. See, e.g., FTC v. Ticor Title Insurance Co., 504 U.S. 621 (1992); California Retail Liquor Dealers Ass'n v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc., 445 U.S. 97, 105 (1980).

The second proviso in Paragraph II allows AHN to engage in conduct (including collectively determining reimbursement and other terms of contracts) that is reasonably necessary to operate any "qualified risk-sharing joint arrangement" or "qualified clinically-integrated joint arrangement," provided respondent complies with the prior notification requirements set forth in Paragraph VI of the order. The prior notification mechanism will allow the Commission to evaluate a specific proposed arrangement and assess its likely competitive impact.

As defined in the order, a "qualified risk-sharing joint arrangement" must satisfy three conditions. First, all physician participants must share substantial financial risk through the arrangement. The definition of financial risk-sharing tracks the discussion of that term contained in the 1996 FTC/DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care. Second, any agreement on prices or terms of reimbursement must be reasonably necessary to obtain significant efficiencies through the joint arrangement. Third, the arrangement must be non-exclusive - that is, it must not restrict the ability, or facilitate the refusal, of participating physicians to deal with payors individually or through any other network or venture.

A "qualified clinically-integrated joint arrangement" is one in which the physicians undertake cooperative activities to achieve efficiencies in the delivery of clinical services, without necessarily sharing substantial financial risk. This definition also reflects the analysis contained in the 1996 FTC/DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care. Participating physicians must establish 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. In addition, the arrangement must be non-exclusive, and any agreement on prices or terms of reimbursement must be reasonably necessary to obtaining significant efficiencies through the arrangement.

The proposed order also imposes a structural remedy for a period of five years. Although the Commission has not routinely imposed structural relief on physician groups in previous cases, such relief is not unprecedented. See, e.g., Home Oxygen and Medical Equipment Co., 118 F.T.C. 661 (1994) (pulmonologists prohibited for ten years from acquiring ownership interest in any entity that provides home oxygen delivery services if more than 25 percent of the pulmonologists in the area would be affiliated with the entity), and Physicians Group, Inc., 120 F.T.C. 567 (1995) (physician organization ordered to dissolve). The Commission will continue to consider the option of structural remedies in these cases when necessary to achieve effective relief.

Paragraph III.A requires that if AHN operates a qualified risk-sharing or clinically-integrated joint arrangement, its participating physicians must constitute no more than 30 percent of Fairbanks physicians in any of the key medical specialties of family practice and general internal medicine, obstetrics and/or gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, and orthopedic surgery. Paragraph III.B of the proposed order further requires that, when offering the services of its physicians through any other arrangement, AHN's participating physicians constitute no more than 50 percent of Fairbanks physicians in any of those specialties. Paragraph III.B permits participation by a greater percentage of physicians because it is intended to apply to arrangements in which there is no agreement among AHN participating physicians on price or other competitively significant terms, including messenger model arrangements.

Paragraph III contains two provisos. The first proviso permits AHN to include as a participating physician any single physician or any one pre-existing physician practice group, without regard to the percentage limitations. The single physician exception allows AHN to exceed the percentage limitations in instances where there may be only a few physicians in a designated medical speciality; and the one pre-existing practice group exception allows AHN to exceed the percentage limitations where the alternative would be to require an integrated practice group to downsize. The second proviso permits AHN to exceed the percentage limitations to the extent that the excess arises from certain changes in the marketplace. As a result of these provisos, once AHN is operating in conformity with percentage limitations contained in the order, it will not be required to reduce its physician membership because of (1) the addition of a physician (who was not already in practice in Fairbanks) to a member practice group, or (2) a reduction in the total number of physicians in a particular specialty (and thus in the denominator used in calculating the percentage of physicians in a specialty who can be AHN members) as a result of physician exit from the market.

The structural relief in this case is necessary to prevent continuing tacit collusion among AHN members. Fairbanks is an isolated community with a relatively small number of physicians, a high proportion of whom are AHN members. According to the allegations of the complaint, these doctors have demonstrated an unwillingness to participate in health plans independently of AHN. In these circumstances, there is a significant risk of continuing tacit collusion among AHN members that cannot adequately be addressed by an order limited to prohibiting certain specified conduct (i.e., AHN members might be able to coordinate their refusals to deal with payors without engaging in overt acts of collusion). Moreover, since AHN purported to operate as a messenger model, but in fact actively negotiated price and nonprice terms on behalf of its physician members, an order limited to conduct remedies would have required detailed provisions governing AHN's future operation as a messenger. The structural relief, by contrast, will permit AHN, subject to the five-year size limits, to carry on its activities as it finds most effective without detailed oversight by the Commission, so long as the core prohibitions of Paragraph II are respected.

The structural relief contained in the order responds to the particular facts of this case, and is intended to interrupt the chain of effects flowing from the conduct alleged in the complaint and to permit time for new market structures and relationships to develop among Fairbanks physicians and between the physicians and health plans. The presence of this provision in the proposed order does not suggest that other physician networks whose membership exceeds the percentage limitations are likely to have anticompetitive effects. The provision is limited to five years in order to give AHN the greatest possible freedom to respond to changing market conditions thereafter, once the effects of the challenged conduct have dissipated.

The remaining provisions of the proposed order impose obligations on AHN with respect to distributing the order and complaint to its members and other specified persons and reporting information to the Commission. The order terminates twenty years after the date it issues.