FTC seeks more time on Phoebe decision

The Federal Trade Commission on Monday requested 60 days beyond a previous deadline to decide whether to sign off on its 2013 antitrust settlement with an Albany hospital system.

Monday was the FTC’s deadline to finalize the agreement with Phoebe Putney Health System. But in a filing in U.S. District Court, the agency asked the court for more time.

In the filing, the FTC asked the court to give it until June 13 — or until 30 days after a state agency determines whether a potential divestiture of the Albany hospital that Phoebe Putney acquired in 2011 would require regulatory approval — whichever date is earlier.

The state agency’s decision could be pivotal to whether the FTC goes through with the settlement or resumes its legal battle in the high-profile antitrust case.

The FTC first challenged the merger of Phoebe Putney with Palmyra Medical Center three years ago. It argued that allowing the merged entity to operate the only two hospitals in Albany would be anti-competitive and harm health care consumers in the city and the southwest Georgia region.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital

Last August, after the legal battle had raged for roughly two years, the FTC and Phoebe Putney announced they were willing to settle the case, and that the deal would allow Phoebe to keep control of the former Palmyra, now called Phoebe North.

But this year, in a March 31 letter, the FTC asked the Georgia Department of Community Health about a possible breakup of the two hospitals and whether it would require approval under the state’s certificate-of-need (CON) laws.

The letter said the federal agency gave preliminary agreement to the settlement because it believed Georgia’s CON laws — which limit the number of health care facilities in the state — would prevent the decoupling of the merged Albany hospitals even if the FTC won the suit. But a potential buyer for the former Palmyra had since come forward, the FTC letter said.

Earlier in March, an entity called North Albany Medical Center had asked DCH about a determination on the Albany CON matter. An attorney for North Albany noted that Community Health agreed in 2012 that South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta could disengage from and sell a psychiatric hospital without a CON review.

In its federal court filing Monday, the FTC said it had consulted with Phoebe Putney’s attorneys and that they “do not oppose this motion” for a delay in deciding on the settlement.