‘Pricing data I’ve seen is that health care costs too much in WNC,’ AG Stein says
BREVARD, N.C. (WLOS) — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein weighed in on the HCA Healthcare legal battle while visiting Transylvania County on Tuesday afternoon.
The health care system currently has lawsuits leveled against it from six Buncombe County residents, the city of Brevard, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County accusing it of monopolization practices.
“The problem is HCA, which has the profit motive, has bought Mission and now we’re seeing prices go up apparently even higher,” Stein said.
The lawsuit asserts an “extensive pattern of alleged behavior by HCA intended to monopolize health care markets in Western North Carolina, the result of which is artificially high prices for health care services and a reduced standard of care that has damaged, and continues to damage, local governments and private entities who act as self-insurers for their employees.”
“The pricing data I’ve seen is that health care costs too much in WNC,” Stein said. “We’re one of the most expensive states in the country for health care and that’s because we’ve had more consolidation in all but three states in the country.”
Last month, the city of Brevard also sued HCA Healthcare Inc., Mission Hospital and their related entities for allegedly engaging “in a scheme to monopolize health care markets in seven counties in Western North Carolina: Buncombe, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Transylvania and Yancey.”
“When big hospitals acquire little hospitals, prices go up and quality goes down. That is a huge problem,” Stein said. “The way you fight that is to have more competition.”
News 13 reached out to a spokesperson for HCA, who called the lawsuits “disappointing.”
“Mission Health has been caring for Western North Carolina for more than 130 years and our dedication to providing excellent healthcare to our community will not waiver as we vigorously defend against this meritless litigation. We are disappointed in this action and we continue to be proud of the heroic work our team does daily. We are committed to caring for our communities as demonstrated through more than $270 million in Charity Care and uninsured discounts we provided in 2021, expansion of hospital services including the opening of the North Tower, a new Pediatric ER, and breaking ground on a new 120-bed behavioral health hospital, all while earning a Leapfrog Grade A for quality and safety. Further, we have invested in our community by contributing more than $2.5 million to community programs and paying more than $53 million in taxes just in 2021. Mission Health is committed to the health and well-being of every person who comes to us for care and we are proud of our dedicated hospital teams and the exceptional care they provide to our patients.”
Stein said the monopolization occurred in the 1990s when Mission acquired Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
“The state put what’s called a COPA on them, which said, ‘We will immunize you against anti-trust enforcement, but you’re subject to state regulation,’” Stein said. “In 2016, the legislature lifted that protection and what we’ve seen is prices go up.”
Stein said his office is weighing in after HCA filed a motion to have the lawsuits dismissed.
While the legal battles persist, HCA made a bid to fill the need for 67 acute care beds in WNC.
AdventHealth and Novant also vying to fill the need.
Stein sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services on Monday, urging the department not to grant Mission Health the certificate of need for 67 additional hospital beds.
“I said, ‘I don’t care which of these two others get it, just don’t give it to HCA because they have a monopoly in WNC,” Stein said.
An HCA spokesperson said they are “not aligned” with the opinions expressed by Stein.
“While we are not aligned with the opinion expressed in the AG Office’s letter, we are confident the NC Department of Health and Human Services will evaluate our application based on the state’s most recent Medical Facilities Plan, which detailed the need for 67 additional acute care beds. We are proud of our high-quality care and the significant investments we have made to expand access to healthcare, none of which were opposed by the AG’s office. Mission Health has responded to the growing medical needs of Western North Carolina by adding a new behavioral hospital, building a new wing and pediatric ER at Mission Hospital, constructing a new replacement hospital in Franklin and expanding capacity at Mission Hospital McDowell.
There are several other hospitals not associated with Mission in and around our 18-county region and we are proud to collaborate with their teams and proud that those hospitals, including one of the other applicants, regularly transfer their acute care patients to Mission Hospital when a higher level of care is needed. Our proposal is to use the 67 beds to increase ICU beds and MedSurg beds to serve the communities’ growing need for complex and specialty care.”