- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The operator of LSU’s Shreveport hospital sued its regional competitor Thursday, accusing it of violating federal antitrust laws and trying to take away university-affiliated doctors and paying patients.

The lawsuit, filed in Shreveport by the Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana, or BRF, is an outgrowth of continuing tensions with LSU since the foundation took control of the university’s Shreveport and Monroe hospitals in October 2013.

BRF accuses Willis-Knighton Health System of trying to undermine the entire LSU hospital privatization deal.

The research foundation, which runs the two state-owned hospitals as University Health, said plans to have LSU doctors working at Willis-Knighton clinics to provide specialty care will give Willis-Knighton a monopoly in the market, largely eliminating competition and driving up health care costs in the region.

Steve Skrivanos, chairman of the BRF board, said Willis-Knighton was “trying to destroy University Health as a competitor.” The lawsuit seeks to nullify the clinic plans.

Monroe-based insurance company Vantage Health Plan also joined the lawsuit, claiming Willis-Knighton has refused to offer the insurer reasonable contract terms to provide coverage in the Shreveport area.

Vantage CEO Gary Jones said Willis-Knighton is able to charge as much as two or three times what health providers charge in other regions because the health system controls so much of the market.

“That increases costs for everybody,” Jones said.

Willis-Knighton wouldn’t comment Thursday on the lawsuit, saying in a statement that it has “a long-standing policy of not speaking or responding publicly on the business decisions or actions of other health care providers.”

University officials and BRF have repeatedly clashed since Gov. Bobby Jindal privatized the north Louisiana hospitals nearly two years ago. The foundation had never run a patient care facility when it got the no-bid contract, and several state officials are pushing for LSU to find a new operator of the two hospitals - and to consider Willis-Knighton.

LSU System President F. King Alexander notified the research foundation last week that it has failed to meet its contractual obligations and is considered in breach of contract. Willis-Knighton reached out to Jindal and others about possibly assuming management of LSU’s Shreveport hospital earlier this year.

The lawsuit claims Willis-Knighton is seeking to pressure LSU to oust the research foundation as hospital manager, “so that Willis-Knighton can take it over.” The privatization deal for the LSU hospitals has worked so well that Willis-Knighton is threatened by the improved competition, the lawsuit says.

But David Ettinger, an antitrust lawyer hired by BRF, said the antitrust lawsuit wasn’t “a matter of retaliation” against Willis-Knighton.

He said to give Willis-Knighton “an even greater mass of providers violates the law and we think is harmful to the community.” He estimated the health system has 75 percent of the commercially insured business in the region today and said that would grow to 86 percent if the LSU clinic deal was allowed to take place.

Willis-Knighton described its support for the LSU medical school and its doctors, saying physicians from the university have worked with Willis-Knighton for decades.

“It has been and continues to be a healthy, positive relationship for patients and families throughout our area,” the statement said.

Willis-Knighton previously raised antitrust concerns itself two years ago, when it decided against entering a privatization deal with the Jindal administration to take over the LSU Shreveport hospital.

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