Saint Francis Hospital main entrance on Woodland Street in Hartford. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Hartford HealthCare is seeking to have a federal judge dismiss the landmark anti-trust lawsuit filed by Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, arguing that its competitor has chosen not to engage in fair competition despite being the much larger hospital chain.

In its motion to dismiss, its first substantive response to a federal lawsuit alleging it is violating antitrust laws, Hartford HealthCare acknowledges it has hired away doctors from its competitor, a central claim of the lawsuit. But, it claims, Saint Francis’ remedy should be to use its massive financial advantage to keep its physicians, instead of trying to stifle competition.

“Hartford HealthCare and other competing systems in Connecticut have indeed successfully competed to recruit some physicians to their systems who formerly practiced at St. Francis. That leaves St. Francis with a choice. One option is to compete harder to recruit and retain physicians,” the motion states.  

“There is no reason it could not do so, particularly given its massive financial resources — it has higher operating margins than Hartford HealthCare, and is owned by industry giant Trinity Health, a system that includes about 90 other hospitals.”

St. Francis’s injuries do not derive from a reduction in competition; they arise from competition itself.

Hartford Healthcare’s motion to dismiss

But rather than compete, Saint Francis chose to file the anti-trust lawsuit and not only “chill” its main competitor but also deny physicians the right to seek better employment, whether it be with Hartford HealthCare or some other hospital.

“St. Francis’s injuries do not derive from a reduction in competition; they arise from competition itself. The injuries about which St. Francis complains — alleged reduced opportunities for physician referrals to St. Francis — would be the same if St. Francis had lost those physicians to any other hospital in the area, such as Yale New Haven Hospital, Manchester Memorial Hospital, Bristol Hospital, or UConn,” the motion states.

“We are aware Hartford Healthcare has filed a response to our complaint,” said Kaitlin Rocheleau, Saint Francis Hospital’s spokesperson. “We strongly disagree with Hartford HealthCare’s position and remain committed to protecting our patients, physicians and the community. Our ultimate goal remains that the residents of greater Hartford area have access to health care that is high in quality with lower costs.”

Hartford HealthCare spokesperson Tina Varona released a statement as well.

“St. Francis, which is one of almost 90 hospitals across the nation run by Michigan-based Trinity Health, is bringing this suit not because of a reduction in competition, but because of competition itself — the kind of competition and innovation that benefits patients and that antitrust laws are designed to protect,” Varona said. “Further, St. Francis is attempting to interfere with where physicians may choose to do their work. St. Francis’s suit has no merit and distorts the many ways Hartford HealthCare serves the community.”

The motion was filed late Wednesday night in U.S. District Court. It is a routine legal maneuver by a defendant in a lawsuit. Saint Francis will have 21 days to respond to the motion to dismiss, and then Hartford HealthCare will have a chance to file a rebuttal claim.

The case has been assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello, who could decide to hold a court hearing on the motion or rule on the legal arguments from both sides. Defendants typically have a high bar to prove that a case should be dismissed with no evidence being collected.

The 75-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven in January 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.  

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.”

Hartford HealthCare officials have said publicly only that they would fight the lawsuit and that it was without merit.

But the motion to dismiss argues that Saint Francis’s “antitrust claims fail because the antitrust laws do not give it the right to interfere with physician-employees’ decisions as to where to work, even if those employment decisions allegedly harm St. Francis’s business.”

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.”

The motion to dismiss also argues that Saint Francis has failed to plead sufficient facts to sustain its allegations that it was foreclosed from a relevant market, or that Hartford HealthCare’s other alleged conduct constitutes an antitrust violation.

“A party claiming foreclosure must adequately define the relevant market, and plead facts indicating that it has been substantially foreclosed from that market. But instead of defining a market based on the range of competitive opportunities available to it, St. Francis instead attempts to define markets limited solely to a subset of patients — those enrolled in plans offered by ‘commercial insurers,’” the motion states.

“St. Francis does not adequately allege why other types of patients, i.e., those who pay for their care with Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, or traditional Medicare, are not important as well, and why they are not adequate substitutes for commercially insured patients.”

 

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Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.