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ARIZONA v. MARICOPA COUNTY MEDICAL SOCIETY ET AL.

decided: June 18, 1982.

ARIZONA
v.
MARICOPA COUNTY MEDICAL SOCIETY ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, White, and Marshall, JJ., joined. Powell, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and Rehnquist, J., joined, post, p. 357. Blackmun and O'connor, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Author: Stevens

[ 457 U.S. Page 335]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether § 1 of the Sherman Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U. S. C. § 1, has been violated by agreements among competing physicians setting, by majority vote, the maximum fees that they may claim in full

[ 457 U.S. Page 336]

     payment for health services provided to policyholders of specified insurance plans. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the question could not be answered without evaluating the actual purpose and effect of the agreements at a full trial. 643 F.2d 553 (1980). Because the undisputed facts disclose a violation of the statute, we granted certiorari, 450 U.S. 979 (1981), and now reverse.

I

In October 1978 the State of Arizona filed a civil complaint against two county medical societies and two "foundations for medical care" that the medical societies had organized. The complaint alleged that the defendants were engaged in illegal price-fixing conspiracies.*fn1 After the defendants filed their answers, one of the medical societies was dismissed by consent, the parties conducted a limited amount of pretrial discovery, and the State moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. The District Court denied the motion,*fn2 but entered an order pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 1292(b),

[ 457 U.S. Page 337]

     certifying for interlocutory appeal the question "whether the FMC membership agreements, which contain the promise to abide by maximum fee schedules, are illegal per se under section 1 of the Sherman Act."*fn3

The Court of Appeals, by a divided vote, affirmed the District Court's order refusing to enter partial summary judgment, but each of the three judges on the panel had a different view of the case. Judge Sneed was persuaded that "the challenged practice is not a per se violation." 643 F.2d, at

[ 457 U.S. Page 338560]

     .*fn4 Judge Kennedy, although concurring, cautioned that he had not found "these reimbursement schedules to be per se proper, [or] that an examination of these practices under the rule of reason at trial will not reveal the proscribed adverse effect on competition, or that this court is foreclosed at some later date, when it has more evidence, from concluding that such schedules do constitute per se violations." Ibid.*fn5 Judge Larson dissented, expressing the view that a per se rule should apply and, alternatively, that a rule-of-reason analysis should condemn the arrangement even if a per se approach was not warranted. Id., at 563-569.*fn6

[ 457 U.S. Page 339]

     Because the ultimate question presented by the certiorari petition is whether a partial summary judgment should have been entered by the District Court, we must assume that the respondents' version of any disputed issue of fact is correct. We therefore first review the relevant undisputed facts and then identify the factual basis for the respondents' contention that their agreements on fee schedules are not unlawful.

II

The Maricopa Foundation for Medical Care is a nonprofit Arizona corporation composed of licensed doctors of medicine, osteopathy, and podiatry engaged in private practice. Approximately 1,750 doctors, representing about 70% of the practitioners in Maricopa County, are members.

The Maricopa Foundation was organized in 1969 for the purpose of promoting fee-for-service medicine and to provide the community with a competitive alternative to existing health insurance plans.*fn7 The foundation performs three primary activities. It establishes the schedule of maximum fees that participating doctors agree to accept as payment in full for services performed for patients insured under plans approved by the foundation. It reviews the medical necessity and appropriateness of treatment provided by its members to such insured persons. It is authorized to draw checks on insurance company accounts to pay doctors for

[ 457 U.S. Page 340]

     services performed for covered patients. In performing these functions, the foundation is considered an "insurance administrator" by the Director of the Arizona Department of Insurance. Its participating doctors, however, have no financial interest in the operation of the foundation.

The Pima Foundation for Medical Care, which includes about 400 member doctors,*fn8 performs similar functions. For the purposes of this litigation, the parties seem to regard the activities of the two foundations as essentially the same. No challenge is made to their peer review or claim administration functions. Nor do the foundations allege that these two activities make it necessary for them to engage in the practice of establishing maximum-fee schedules.

At the time this lawsuit was filed,*fn9 each foundation made use of "relative values" and "conversion factors" in compiling its fee schedule. The conversion factor is the dollar amount used to determine fees for a particular medical specialty. Thus, for example, the conversion factors for "medicine" and "laboratory" were $8 and $5.50, respectively, in 1972, and $10 and $6.50 in 1974. The relative value schedule provides a numerical weight for each different medical service -- thus, an office consultation has a lesser value than a home visit. The relative value was multiplied by the conversion factor to determine the maximum fee. The fee schedule has been revised periodically. The foundation board of trustees would solicit advice from various medical societies about the need

[ 457 U.S. Page 341]

     for change in either relative values or conversion factors in their respective specialties. The board would then formulate the new fee schedule and submit it to the vote of the entire membership.*fn10

The fee schedules limit the amount that the member doctors may recover for services performed for patients insured under plans approved by the foundations. To obtain this approval the insurers -- including self-insured employers as well as insurance companies*fn11 -- agree to pay the doctors' charges up to the scheduled amounts, and in exchange the doctors agree to accept those amounts as payment in full for their services. The doctors are free to charge higher fees to uninsured patients, and they also may charge any patient less than the scheduled maxima. A patient who is insured by a foundation-endorsed plan is guaranteed complete coverage for the full amount of his medical bills only if he is treated by a foundation member. He is free to go to a nonmember physician and is still covered for charges that do not exceed the maximum-fee schedule, but he must pay any excess that the nonmember physician may charge.

The impact of the foundation fee schedules on medical fees and on insurance premiums is a matter of dispute. The State of Arizona contends that the periodic upward revisions of the maximum-fee schedules have the effect of stabilizing and enhancing the level of actual charges by physicians, and

[ 457 U.S. Page 342]

     that the increasing level of their fees in turn increases insurance premiums. The foundations, on the other hand, argue that the schedules impose a meaningful limit on physicians' charges, and that the advance agreement by the doctors to accept the maxima enables the insurance carriers to limit and to calculate more efficiently the risks they underwrite and therefore serves as an effective cost-containment mechanism that has saved patients and insurers millions of dollars. Although the Attorneys General of 40 different States, as well as the Solicitor General of the United States and certain organizations representing consumers of medical services, have filed amicus curiae briefs supporting the State of Arizona's position on the merits, we must assume that the respondents' view of the genuine issues of fact is correct.

This assumption presents, but does not answer, the question whether the Sherman Act prohibits the competing doctors from adopting, revising, and agreeing to use a maximum-fee schedule in implementation of the insurance plans.

III

The respondents recognize that our decisions establish that price-fixing agreements are unlawful on their face. But they argue that the per se rule does not govern this case because the agreements at issue are horizontal and fix maximum prices, are among members of a profession, are in an industry with which the judiciary has little antitrust experience, and are alleged to have procompetitive justifications. Before we examine each of these arguments, we pause to consider the history and the meaning of the per se rule against price-fixing agreements.

A

Section 1 of the Sherman Act of 1890 literally prohibits every agreement "in restraint of trade."*fn12 In United States

[ 457 U.S. Page 343]

     v. Joint Traffic Assn., 171 U.S. 505 (1898), we recognized that Congress could not have intended a literal interpretation of the word "every"; since Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911), we have analyzed most restraints under the so-called "rule of reason." As its name suggests, the rule of reason requires the factfinder to decide whether under all the circumstances of the case the restrictive practice imposes an unreasonable restraint on competition.*fn13

The elaborate inquiry into the reasonableness of a challenged business practice entails significant costs. Litigation of the effect or purpose of a practice often is extensive and complex. Northern Pacific R. Co. v. United States, 356 U.S. 1, 5 (1958). Judges often lack the expert understanding of industrial market structures and behavior to determine with any confidence a practice's effect on competition. United States v. Topco Associates, Inc., 405 U.S. 596, 609-610 (1972). And the result of the process in any given case may provide little certainty or guidance about the legality of a practice in another context. Id., at 609, n. 10; Northern Pacific R. Co. v. United States, supra, at 5.

[ 457 U.S. Page 344]

     The costs of judging business practices under the rule of reason, however, have been reduced by the recognition of per Page 344} se rules.*fn14 Once experience with a particular kind of restraint enables the Court to predict with confidence that the rule of reason will condemn it, it has applied a conclusive presumption that the restraint is unreasonable.*fn15 As in every rule of general application, the match between the presumed and the actual is imperfect. For the sake of business certainty and litigation efficiency, we have tolerated the invalidation of some agreements that a fullblown inquiry might have proved to be reasonable.*fn16

Thus the Court in Standard Oil recognized that inquiry under its rule of reason ended once a price-fixing agreement was proved, for there was "a conclusive presumption which

[ 457 U.S. Page 345]

     brought [such agreements] within the statute." 221 U.S., at 65. By 1927, the Court was able to state that "it has . . . often been decided and always assumed that uniform price-fixing by those controlling in any substantial manner a trade or business in interstate commerce is prohibited ...


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