Almost 120 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and an estimated 21 percent of rural hospitals are at high risk of closure.
The high number of financially stressed hospitals is creating a crisis of access for rural communities and a potential crisis of quality and patient safety, as these hospitals struggle to secure sufficient clinical and technological resources. These struggles can be even more difficult in towns that could once support two hospitals but can no longer do so.
A solution to the rural health crisis that promotes partnerships with larger health systems addresses two critical needs. First, it enables a rational, equitable approach to a fundamental restructuring of rural health care resources. Second, it provides access to sufficient financial resources to ensure that rural communities are able to benefit from the same resources available elsewhere.
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Antitrust impediments to a system-based approach
Current antitrust law makes it difficult for individual hospitals or health systems to collaborate on efforts to restructure delivery of essential services within a rural health care market. These efforts can, however, be pursued among facilities owned by a single health system, enabling a rational and equitable distribution of services across the health system’s network of facilities and the communities they serve.
The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice have themselves acknowledged the value of a system-based approach to rural health. In their 1996 “Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care,” the agencies created a safe zone for mergers of certain hospitals with a low bed size and low patient census with other hospitals.
The agencies recognized that these hospitals often “will be the only hospital in the relevant market” and that “mergers involving such hospitals are unlikely to reduce competition substantially.” They also recognized that “rural hospitals … are unlikely to achieve the efficiencies that larger hospitals enjoy. Some of these cost-saving efficiencies may be realized … through a merger.”
The situation becomes more difficult when a community has two hospitals that do not fall within the safe zone and it can no longer support both. Such markets will be considered highly concentrated, and an attempt to merge the hospitals likely will be challenged by the federal agencies.
Several states have tried to overcome the likelihood of an antitrust challenge by granting certificates of public advantage to health systems that want to come together to more effectively pool resources and rationalize services within a rural market. But these efforts also are being challenged by the federal agencies.
The threat of antitrust enforcement actions throws a chill over health system-led efforts to make the rural health care delivery system more rational, economically viable and equitable. For example, the systems that combined to form Ballad Health went through a two-year process to secure the COPA that ultimately allowed their merger.
They willingly accepted state oversight of their efforts to rationalize health care delivery. Yet, they now face an order by the FTC to provide extensive information for a study on the impact of COPAs, even though long-term benefits will not be apparent just a year after the merger. The effort and ongoing scrutiny these systems take on certainly might dissuade other health systems from pursuing a similar route.
Rethinking competition in rural health care markets
The FTC and DOJ must revisit an approach that prioritizes competition over access to care and the quality and financial sustainability of the rural health care delivery system. The agencies have themselves acknowledged that competition among hospitals may not be a practical reality in rural communities.
The rural health care crisis is happening now; there is not time for multiyear studies of the impact of efforts to rationalize and improve rural health care. Health systems that understand and are willing to take on the challenges of rural health care markets should be given the opportunity to do so.
Ken Kaufman is chair of Kaufman, Hall & Associates LLC.
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