An unlikely coalition of employers, health insurers and hospitals has persuaded Republicans to postpone action on a physician antitrust exemption bill until next year.
Thomas Reardon, M.D., president of the American Medical Association, said the group was "extremely disappointed" that the bill won't be considered until next year at the earliest.
The House Judiciary Committee was to vote Oct. 27 on a bill that would have allowed individual physicians to collectively negotiate prices with health plans. Rep. Thomas Campbell (R-Calif.) sponsored the measure.
Current antitrust laws bar competitors from collectively setting or negotiating prices for their products or services. Exempt from the prohibition are unionized workers.
But on Oct. 22, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) asked Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) to postpone the vote.
Insurers, employers and hospitals have lobbied furiously against the bill, which they say will drive up their costs and fly in the face of existing labor and antitrust laws.
"We did go and raise a lot of concerns about this coming up at this point, right after the House vote on (the managed-care reform bill)," said Kate Sullivan, healthcare policy manager at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We're concerned about what this means for other independent contractors."
Suhail Khan, Campbell's spokesman, said Hastert moved the committee vote and floor action to February 2000 because "he was concerned about having our bill and the (managed-care reform) bill in the pipeline at the same time."
While the employer and insurance lobbies failed to prevent an aggressive managed-care bill from passing the House last month, they have formed a powerful alliance with hospitals to battle the Campbell bill.
Ironically, the hospital industry won antitrust concessions from the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission in the mid-1990s that helped fuel the hospital merger and acquisition boom. The industry apparently does not want to extend the same legal flexibility to physicians.
The 53-member Antitrust Coalition for Consumer Choice in Health Care includes the the American Association of Health Plans, the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Health Systems and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The coalition chose Robert Leibenluft as a spokesman. He headed the FTC's healthcare antitrust division and is now an antitrust lawyer with the Washington firm Hogan & Hartson.
The coalition members aren't the only ones opposing the Campbell bill. One original sponsor, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), withdrew his support for the proposal one week after the House voted on managed-care reform.
"Initially, I thought the Campbell bill was a good idea," Coburn told MODERN HEALTHCARE. "But it really goes against the market and is really anti-competitive. It will put more money in doctors' pockets in areas where there are too many doctors. It fixes the wrong problem."
Congress can solve the real problem by agreeing on a modest HMO reform bill like the one he sponsored with Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Coburn said.