Merger Cops Must ‘Push the Envelope’ in Health, FTC Official Says

(Bloomberg) -- Antitrust enforcers should be aggressive in policing mergers in the health-care industry to keep costs down for consumers, even if it means a greater risk of losing cases, said Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter.

“We should push the envelope and not be afraid to bring cases,” Slaughter, a Democrat on the Republican-controlled FTC, said Tuesday in a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “If we never bring a case unless it’s a sure thing, we’re almost certainly under-enforcing.”

Slaughter’s remarks support the chorus of calls among lawmakers and policy advocates who say antitrust officials at the FTC and the Justice Department need to get tougher on mergers and anticompetitive conduct across industries.

The FTC investigates mergers between health-care providers like hospitals and is reviewing UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s proposed acquisition of DaVita Inc.’s physician network business.

Slaughter also criticized UnitedHealth’s decision to withdraw from the Health Care Cost Institute, a non-profit that collects claims data. UnitedHealth said in a statement that the company is expanding partnerships with organizations and experts to conduct health-care research.

“This is a deeply troubling development,” Slaughter said. “If they don’t want to share the data, it does make you ask, why. What are they afraid of us finding out from the data that’s out there.”

The commissioner also called private-equity acquisitions in health care a “really disturbing trend” in response to a question about leveraged buyouts in the industry. That echoes concerns about private-equity firms raised by fellow Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra.

"It’s something we need to look at really carefully," Slaughter said.

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