Physicians are pushing hard for the House to vote on legislation that would loosen antitrust requirements on providers trying to form networks.
Members of the American Medical Association have been phoning and writing letters to representatives, urging them to support the Antitrust Healthcare Advancement Act, sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Hyde's committee passed the bill March 12.
The AMA says the campaign has yielded some progress, as the number of co-sponsors more than doubled to 143 between the Judiciary Committee vote and the end of May. That list grew by 35 between mid-April and the end of May alone.
Opponents of antitrust reform say they are concerned, but they also say the shrinking legislative calendar and the strong opposition from other groups may hold the physicians at bay.
In addition, the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission plan to release in August new guidelines to allow greater freedom in forming physician networks, which may make the need to pass legislation questionable.
"We're mindful that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have said they're going to employ a different approach," AMA spokesman James Stacey said. But he added: "We think the legislation would be helpful."
If the AMA decides the Justice Department and FTC guidelines are inadequate, it could renew the push, said a lobbyist for an opposition group.
"The most likely risk this year would be following (publication of) the guidelines," said Heidi Hayduk, a lobbyist for a coalition of providers, employers and managed-care companies.
Hyde's legislation would treat the conduct of providers forming networks under the loose "rule of reason" standard, which would require federal antitrust enforcement agencies to demonstrate that exchanging prices or other financial information is anti-competitive before prohibiting a network from forming.
Today, unless a network is financially integrated, shares risk or introduces a new product to the marketplace, exchanging price information is considered a per se violation of price-fixing bans.
Doctors say the legislation is needed because current interpretations of the law prevent physician-sponsored provider networks from forming and, as a result, actually dampen competition.
But employers, managed-care companies and other providers contend that loosening antitrust rules will allow doctors to fix prices, boycott other providers or shut them out of the marketplace. They point to the frequency with which the FTC and the Justice Department now approve physician networks.
In a February hearing on Hyde's bill, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said the new guidelines will consider other forms of integration-besides financial integration or risk sharing-that networks can use to avoid price-fixing charges.