Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the merger between Penn State Hershey Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System, the two largest hospitals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, may not move forward at this time. The Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s (Middle District of PA) denial of the FTC’s and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s request for a preliminary injunction, directing the District Court to enter a preliminary injunction blocking the merger “pending the outcome of the FTC’s administrative adjudication.”

In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals held that the critical determination of the relevant market for a proper antitrust analysis should be defined primarily “through the lens of the insurers” and that it “was error for the District court to completely disregard the role insurers play in the healthcare market.” The Court of Appeals ruled that the relevant market was the four- county Harrisburg area. It found that the market was highly concentrated and that the combined hospitals would control 76% percent of the market. As a result the plaintiffs were found to have established a prima facie case that the merger “is presumptively anticompetitive.”

In rebuttal, the hospitals alleged, among other things, that, the merger would result in efficiencies leading to capital savings and enhance the hospitals’ efforts to engage in risk-based contracting, but the Court of Appeals found that these arguments failed to demonstrate tangible, verifiable benefits to consumers, and only constituted “speculative assurances.” It remains to be seen whether the hospitals will continue their pursuit of merger through the FTC’s administrative review process or abandon it.

This decision, like others involving hospitals that have preceded it, underscores the unique nature of the markets in which hospitals and other healthcare providers operate. These markets are not primarily defined by the direct impact of market consolidation upon the behavior of the ultimate consumers, the patients. Instead, the markets are defined by the patients’ purchasing surrogates, their health insurers.