The Federal Trade Commission on Friday announced that it has settled antitrust charges against the 1,500-member Washington University Physician Network in St. Louis. In the proposed agreement, the not-for-profit doctors' network is prohibited from negotiating with payers on behalf of any physician and cannot facilitate the sharing of information about contract terms among its physician members.
Exceptions will be allowed in cases where WUPN participates in joint negotiations that are either a "qualified risk-sharing joint arrangement" or a "qualified clinically integrated joint arrangement."
The settlement addresses only physicians in the group's PPO network, according to FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz. Those physicians now will be required to negotiate with payers on an individual basis, Katz says. Each violation of the order by the group could result in an $11,000 civil penalty.
A representative of the doctors' group was unavailable for comment.
According to the commission, the Washington University Physician Network allegedly violated the FTC act by collectively negotiating contracts between its members and third-party payers. That anticompetitive action raised the cost of medical care in the St. Louis market and was not related to any "efficiency-enhancing integration," the FTC says.
"This group of St. Louis-area physicians engaged in overt price-fixing," says Joe Simons, director of the FTC Bureau of Competition, in a prepared statement. "Its conduct was plainly anticompetitive and harmful to consumers, by forcing up prices in this area. It is a straightforward violation of the FTC act."