Rob Weisman and Liz Kowalczyk report in today's Boston Globe that the US Justice Department is investigating possible antitrust violations against Partners Healthcare System, the dominant hospital and physician provider group in Massachusetts.
The letter, obtained by the Globe, said the probe sought to determine whether the practices violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, which bars companies from using their market power to limit trade or artificially raise prices.
Since the Attorney General has already reported that rates collected by PHS are clearly higher than most others in the market, I imagine the case will rise or fall on the following proposition: Is the market power of this system necessary to produce an integration of care that brings clinical advantages to the public served by it? You could test this the following way: If you look at the actual data, is the safety and quality of care offered by PHS significantly different (in a positive way) from other academic medical centers, community hospitals, and physician groups in the state?
Note that I include all three components of the provider network. If a Partners GI doctor in the suburbs doing colonoscopies secures higher rates than his non-Partners colleague down the street -- solely because of his affiliation -- can you document that his care is better? If a patient goes to Newton Wellesley Hospital or North Shore Hospital, where the hospital and the doctors are both paid more than other community hospitals, can you document that their care is better? Ditto, of course, for the care given at the academic centers downtown.
Put it another way. Does the absence of such data -- given the paucity of transparency about clinical outcomes -- create a prima facie case that there is no demonstrable clinical benefit from Partners' market power and its resultant higher prices? Perhaps the answer depends on who has the burden of proof in anti-trust cases. Does the government have to prove that there is no demonstrable clinical advantage, or does Partners have prove that there is?