On July 25, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) submitted comments to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) supporting a proposed rule only affecting VA facilities that would authorize Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to provide primary health care services without the mandatory supervision of physicians, regardless of state or local laws, with limited exceptions. Currently, APRNs in the employ of the VA are subject to VA requirements as well as various regulations on a state-by-state basis, with physician supervision required in over half of the states. Under Proposed Rule RIN 2900-AP44, APRNs that meet VA standards would have the authority to provide a described list of services without such physician supervision.
While the FTC acknowledged the important role of federal and state legislators in determining the “best balance of policy priorities,” the FTC has expressed skepticism of state laws requiring physician supervision. They have noted that such requirements “may raise competition concerns because they effectively give one group of health care professionals the ability to restrict access to the market by another competing group of health care professionals, thereby denying health care consumers the benefits of greater competition.” In fact, the FTC argued that physician supervision requirements may increase the cost of services that APRNs could provide, and by relaxing such requirements, consumers “may gain access to services that would otherwise be unavailable.” This increased access could also address shortages in access to primary and specialty care. As the FTC noted, the US has current and projected health care workforce shortages, particularly in primary care physicians, and the VA has emphasized the need to provide care to veterans in rural areas who have limited access to specialty services, some of which APRNs could provide.
Additionally, the FTC commented that the proposed rule could yield information about models of health care delivery. Under the current system, the VA’s use of APRNs is limited by state regulation. By preempting the state requirements, the FTC argued that the VA would be free to “innovate and experiment with models of team-based care.”
Interestingly, the proposed rule only applies within the scope of VA employment, which falls outside of “competition in the private sector” for which the FTC acknowledged it is typically concerned. But in this instance, the FTC concluded that the VA’s actions could positively impact competition in the health care service provider markets by encouraging entry that could “broaden the availability of health care services” outside of the VA’s system.
This is another example of antitrust regulators’ interest in occupational licensing and competition concerns generally. Just as this letter encourages competition between physicians and nurses for certain health care services, last month, US Department of Justice (DOJ) and FTC jointly submitted a letter encouraging competition between lawyers and non-lawyers in the provision of legal services in North Carolina. We previously analyzed that letter, and other important developments in occupational licensing that have occurred since February 2015, when the Supreme Court affirmed an FTC decision not to apply state action antitrust immunity for occupational licensing boards which are composed of market participants and not actively supervised by the state in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, 574 U.S.___ (Feb. 25, 2015). Here, the regulators have continued to encourage a review of occupational licensing schemes, focusing on the substance of the licensing scheme. In this letter and other actions, the regulators have shown a commitment to challenging and eschewing state occupation licensing schemes to increase competition.