While it's not uncommon for political appointees at federal agencies to leave government service near the end of a presidential term to return to more lucrative private-sector ventures, Federal Trade Commission watchers soon may need a scorecard to track the changes.
The most recently announced departure represents the biggest potential change at the agency. Timothy Muris, who racked up an aggressive record on healthcare competition during his tenure as FTC chairman, has resigned and will return to teaching at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., the White House said last week. The administration nominated former U.S. Justice Department official Deborah Majoras to succeed him.
Muris, 54, a Republican, surprised many in the healthcare industry with his forceful initiatives. From the onset, he was known for leading a newer, tougher, better-informed FTC. Under his administration the agency brought 15 complaints of physician price-fixing against physician groups, signing consent decrees with 13 of those. Two years ago Muris, whom President Bush appointed in April 2001, announced the formation of a hospital mergers' group and the formation of a retrospective study of previously consummated hospital mergers to examine the competitive effects of those deals on healthcare price, quality and access.
From that investigation the FTC filed its first hospital merger challenge in more than six years when it brought a complaint in February against Evanston (Ill.) Northwestern Healthcare. The FTC has challenged pharmaceutical company practices and outside of healthcare, established the telemarketers' "do not call" registry.
In a statement, Muris said that serving as chairman "has been the greatest honor of my professional career."
Majoras, 40, who was second in command at the Justice Department's antitrust division from 2001 to 2003 and is practicing with Jones Day, was principal deputy assistant attorney general under Charles James in the antitrust division. If the Senate confirms her, she will fill the remainder of Muris' term as chairman, which ends in September 2008. Before joining the Justice Department, Majoras worked with James at Jones Day on Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s successful defense against the FTC's challenge of Tenet's merging the only two acute-care hospitals in Poplar Bluff, Mo.
In an interview with Modern Healthcare Majoras declined to comment, citing the pending Senate confirmation.
Majoras will enter an office in transition. Several months ago Michael Cowie, 39, former assistant director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition and head of its Merger Litigation Task Force, left for private practice.
"Chairman Muris made healthcare enforcement a priority from Day One," Cowie said.
Cowie said it's possible for a Muris successor to refocus agency priorities, but he added, "I think the institutional changes he made are likely to be long-lasting."
Cowie was replaced by Chul Pak, 41, who heads the mergers' division, which includes oversight of hospital mergers. Pak joined the FTC in 1998 after working for nine years with the law firm Rogers & Wells. At the FTC he served as the assistant to former Bureau of Competition Director Joe Simons, who left last year for private practice, and his successor, Susan Creighton.
Former FTC official Richard Feinstein, who during the Clinton administration held the position Cowie occupied, said it's difficult to predict what will happen next. "But I wouldn't expect any dramatic shift in enforcement policy," said Feinstein, now with the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
Feinstein said current initiatives, including looking back at hospital mergers, have been approved by a majority of the five FTC commissioners and a chairman alone cannot undo them. He said Muris would leave a legacy of heightened activism in healthcare. "People who assumed that the FTC was about to take a nap when he was named were obviously incorrect," Feinstein said.