A federal judge in Orlando, Fla., late last week denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that could have indefinitely postponed the acquisition of Healthtrust by Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.
Sources said the $5.6 billion merger of Columbia and Healthtrust is being delayed until mid-April although the company had not set a date as of last week.
Shareholders have approved the deal, which originally was set to close by March 31. However, antitrust investigations in Florida and Texas apparently were holding up the deal.
The injunction was sought in a legal dispute over the ownership of South Seminole Hospital in Longwood, Fla.
According to attorneys in the case, the judge agreed with Columbia's arguments that the potential damage to the chain caused by holding up the Healthtrust deal outweighed any damage to South Seminole from letting the sale go through.
The proceedings also offered a look at behind-the-scenes moves in the case.
In a previously confidential internal memo, Columbia executives suggested two ways to end the dispute: swap South Seminole for another hospital or work with its current adversary to exclude a third hospital system from local managed-care contracts.
The U.S. District Court in Orlando made the memo public on March 24, placing it among the publicly available court documents. The plaintiff, the Orlando Regional Healthcare System, subsequently got court approval to forward the memo to the Federal Trade Commission, which is reviewing the proposed acquisition of Healthtrust by Columbia.
Orlando Regional said Columbia and Healthtrust have violated antitrust laws and breached contractual obligations by refusing to sell their 50% interest in South Seminole to Orlando Regional.
Orlando Regional and Healthtrust have been operating the 206-bed hospital through a joint venture since 1992.
Orlando Regional said that under the contract with Healthtrust, it's entitled to assume full ownership of South Seminole if Healthtrust is sold. But Columbia has refused to negotiate, according to Orlando Regional, which subsequently sued Healthtrust and Columbia in February.
In a Feb. 7 memo to Healthtrust President and Chief Executive Officer R. Clayton McWhorter, Dan Moen, president of Columbia's Florida group, offered the two possible solutions. Orlando Regional cited the memo as evidence of Columbia's intent to engage in antitrust conspiracies to divvy up markets.