Revised bill would intervene in Albany hospital fight

The original bill was less than one page – three short paragraphs.

It addressed a fairly routine matter of school superintendents serving on county public health boards, and passed the House unanimously.

But this week, Georgia House Bill 538 was transformed into a vehicle for supporters of the Albany hospital merger to seek to blunt Federal Trade Commission action against the deal.

The new version would buttress antitrust immunity for hospital authorities in Georgia – and make those protections retroactive.

In 2011, the hospital authority of Albany-Dougherty County completed the acquisition of Palmyra Medical Center, which was merged with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, the area’s only other hospital. But the FTC calls the merger anti-competitive and has been fighting it in the courts.

The revised Georgia bill, if passed, would appear to counteract the FTC’s action against the merger.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month gave the FTC a preliminary victory in its two-year fight against the deal, saying the acquisition by the hospital authority was not immune from antitrust scrutiny.

Lower courts had ruled the Georgia General Assembly had already granted antitrust immunity to such deals through a hospital authorities law.

Phoebe Putney’s attorney testified Wednesday before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, expressing support for the new antitrust language. The attorney, Tommy Chambless, said in a statement to GHN, “Phoebe believes the law should be returned to the same status it held for decades before the Supreme Court decision.’’

The substitute language to House Bill 538 reads that “hospital authorities shall be immune from antitrust liability to the same degree and extent as is enjoyed by the state of Georgia.’’

It also states that “such antitrust immunity shall extend to all actions taken prior to and after the effective date of this subsection.’’

Not everybody in Georgia thinks the state should tinker with its antitrust rules. The revisions sparked opposition by health insurers and doctor groups, and the bill was tabled by the panel Wednesday.

But opponents worry that the language on hospital authorities could be attached to another bill. The antitrust language is similar to that in another House bill, HB 230, that didn’t reach the House floor.

The FTC, through a spokesman, declined comment on the Georgia legislation.

Last week, the federal agency pushed forward in its efforts against the acquisition, lifting a stay on the case and directing an administrative law judge to set a new hearing date on the antitrust issues “as soon as is practicable,’’ but no later than July 15.

Health insurers in Georgia oppose the new hospital authorities language in House Bill 538, saying it gives hospitals an unfair advantage over insurance companies, whose mergers must undergo antitrust scrutiny.

The revised bill is clearly targeted to circumvent opposition to the Albany merger, Graham Thompson of the Georgia Association of Health Plans, told GHN in an interview.

“We think the FTC review is prudent so that robust competition [occurs] in that part of the state,’’ Thompson said.

Less competition leads to higher prices for insurers, businesses consumers, he added. He noted the revised bill would not shield hospitals that aren’t part of authorities. “This creates an unlevel playing field, even in the hospital industry,’’ Thompson said.

The Medical Association of Georgia also opposes the bill, saying the antitrust language would “stunt competition, which means that health care costs would increase.”

“This kind of measure would place independent physicians at a competitive disadvantage, which would ultimately have an adverse ripple effect on every physician in Georgia – including the ones who are employed by hospitals,’’ said Donald Palmisano, MAG’s executive director, in a statement.

Chambless pointed out that the legislation is supported by the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals and Georgia Hospital Association.

Since the deal was completed in December 2011, Phoebe officials have said costs have not increased.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Phoebe said it would continue business as usual at the former Palmyra hospital, now called Phoebe North, unless it was told to do otherwise.