A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order that puts the proposed merger of Morton Plant Health System in Clearwater, Fla., and Mease Health Care in Dunedin, Fla., on hold.
Meanwhile, executives of the two systems say they are willing to discuss a possible settlement with the Justice Department and the Florida attorney general's office.
The two agencies sued the systems on May 5, contending that their merger would violate federal antitrust law by giving them control of nearly 60% of the inpatient business in northern Pinellas County on Florida's west coast. Morton Plant operates 672-bed Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Mease operates a 278-bed facility in Dunedin and a 100-bed facility in Safety Harbor, Fla.
On May 9, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday in Tampa, Fla., granted the government's motion for a restraining order. He had yet to schedule a hearing to rule on the government's request for a preliminary injunction that would bar the deal pending the outcome of the antitrust charges.
However, the systems' executives have expressed their interest in short-circuiting a lengthy legal battle by negotiating a possible settlement.
"We're willing to work out a solution to this problem," said Frank Murphy, Morton Plant's president and chief executive officer.
Mr. Murphy didn't elaborate on what concessions the systems would be willing to make to avoid an antitrust trial. But, in several similar cases, hospitals have been permitted to merge despite resulting large market shares if they agree to limit price increases, maintain their charity-care loads and keep or expand their current level of services.