Salt Lake regional Medical Center

The Federal Trade Commission has approved a legal challenge to block Nashville-based HCA Healthcare’s proposed acquisition of five Utah hospitals from Dallas-based Steward Health Care. 

In September, HCA signed a definitive agreement with Steward Health Care, which would grow HCA’s Mountain Division to 16 hospitals in Utah, Idaho and Alaska. The terms were not disclosed. 

The FTC alleges that the deal would eliminate competition in the Wasatch Front region, where approximately 80 percent of Utah’s residents live, and ultimately increase prices while decreasing quality of care.  

“As the second- and fourth-largest health care systems in the Wasatch Front region of Utah, which surrounds Salt Lake City, HCA Healthcare and Steward Health Care System help to keep costs down for consumers by competing vigorously with each other,” said FTC Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova. “The result is lower prices and more innovative services for patients and their families. If these companies merge, this competition will be lost, and Steward will no longer be available to patients as a low-cost provider in this region.”

The complaint also alleges that the acquisition would enable HCA to command higher reimbursement rates, increase market concentration levels in reference to insurers, and reduce competition from three providers to two in some markets and from four to three in others. 

HCA and Steward are both for-profit health care systems with 182 and 41 hospitals, respectively. Both released statements saying they are disappointed in FTC’s challenge. 

"We continue to believe that this combination would benefit patients, most importantly, as well as payers and providers while improving competition in Utah’s health care marketplace," said HCA spokesperson Harlow Sumerford in an email. "By enhancing competition among healthcare providers and increasing efficiency in the delivery of care, we believe HCA Healthcare’s commitment to Utah would provide patients with greater continuity of care, as well as improved access to trusted healthcare providers.