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Saint Francis sues Hartford HealthCare, claims anti-competitive practices

Saint Francis Hospital main entrance on Woodland Street in Hartford.
Saint Francis Hospital main entrance on Woodland Street in Hartford.

Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center has sued Hartford HealthCare and its subsidiaries, including Hartford Hospital, claiming that it is trying to create a monopoly on hospital services by acquiring physician networks, particularly cardiologists, and demanding that they refer their patients only to Hartford HealthCare.

The 75-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven alleges “a campaign of exclusion, acquisition and intimidation” and claims that Hartford HealthCare executives have stated in meetings that their plan was to “crush” or “bury” Saint Francis.

The lawsuit claims that Hartford HealthCare, as it has acquired physician practices over the last four years, has threatened and intimidated physicians who don’t comply with its “dictates.”

The lawsuit sheds light on many issues that normally remain behind closed doors but could be aired in a courtroom as the two giants fight a legal battle that could affect the delivery of health care in the Hartford region for years to come.

Late Tuesday night, Hartford HealthCare officials issued a statement about the lawsuit.

“We believe the complaint filed by St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center is without merit. Hartford HealthCare denies these allegations and we will vigorously defend against them. Our focus remains on serving the needs of our patients and our communities during this raging pandemic, as we care for more hospitalized COVID-19 patients than ever before.”

A spokesperson for Trinity Health of New England, the parent company of St. Francis, issued a statement Tuesday night: “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that residents of the greater Hartford area have access to health care that is high in quality with lower costs.”

Saint Francis is seeking financial damages, a court order to divest any physician practices that Hartford HealthCare has purchased since 2020 and a permanent injunction prohibiting what it describes as “anticompetitive conduct.”

Despite providing “health care that is higher cost and lesser quality” than its competitors, Hartford HealthCare — which operates Hartford Hospital — is cornering the market on lucrative operations such as cardiac and orthopedic surgeries by forcing doctors to send their patients only to Hartford HealthCare hospitals or by obtaining exclusive rights to robotic equipment — specifically a “Mako” robot used in many knee and other bone procedures, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also claims that other hospitals in the Hartford region — Manchester Memorial Hospital, the University of Connecticut John Dempsey Hospital and Bristol Hospital — also suffer due to Hartford HealthCare’s “anticompetitive conduct.”

It also claims that Hartford HealthCare and its network “have interfered with managed care plans’ use of ‘tiered’ networks, which provide employers and consumers with an opportunity to obtain lower cost, higher quality health care at a preferred rate.”

The lawsuit names 21 physicians whose practices were acquired by Hartford HealthCare over the last four years and nine others who became exclusively affiliated with Hartford HealthCare’s network, known as Integrated Care Partners, or ICP.

Among them is Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist who has spoken to media including CT Mirror about the COVID pandemic. Saint Francis also lost Muzibul Chowdhury, a cardiologist, to Hartford HealthCare, the lawsuit states.

“Dr. Chowdhury admitted the most cardiology cases at Saint Francis prior to his acquisition,” the lawsuit states. “Many of these losses are especially harmful to Saint Francis, and to competition, disproportionate to the numbers of physicians lost.”

“Hartford HealthCare’s acquisition of the physician practices of cardiologists is especially harmful to Saint Francis and Hartford HealthCare’s other hospital competitors. That is because cardiac and cardiac surgery cases are among the most profitable cases for hospitals, and therefore the loss of such cases is especially harmful.”

‘Campaign of intimidation’

The growth of Hartford HealthCare has “been aided by its campaign of intimidation,” the lawsuit goes on to say. “Hartford HealthCare has told some physicians that if they did not agree to join its practice, that Hartford HealthCare would ‘crush’ them.”

The lawsuit alleges that Hartford HealthCare executives in some cases “said more specifically that if the physician did not join Hartford HealthCare, that Hartford HealthCare would recruit a physician to compete specifically against that doctor. In other cases, Hartford HealthCare has threatened specialist physicians with the loss of referrals from its more than 50 employed primary care physicians.”

The lawsuit alleges that Hartford HealthCare is violating Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and the federal Sherman Act by “unreasonably restrained trade in each of the relevant markets.”

It argues that because they have created a monopoly, they are able to set higher prices, and health care plans are forced to accept them because of the hospital’s wide range of physicians.

“Hartford HealthCare charges higher prices in part because it has higher costs than Saint Francis or other hospitals in the area. For example, even after adjusting for the complexity of cases, patients at Hartford Hospital stay in the hospital 10% longer than if they are hospitalized at Saint Francis,” the lawsuit states.

“This both increases costs and reduces quality, since longer hospital stays create a risk of possible hospital-acquired infections. Patients are also unable to return home as quickly as they would like. Hartford HealthCare is able to maintain its dominant position despite these deficiencies because of its market power and its anticompetitive conduct.”

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