Antitrust Lawyer Blog

Commentary on Current Developments

On February 4, 2019, the American Institute of Steel Construction, LLC filed antidumping (“AD”) and countervailing (“CVD”) petitions with the U.S. Department of Commerce (“DOC”) and the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”).

Under U.S. law, a domestic industry can petition the government to initiate an AD investigation into the pricing of an imported product to determine whether it is sold in the United States at less than fair value (i.e., “dumped”).  A domestic industry can also petition the initiation of a CVD investigation of alleged subsidization of foreign producers by their government.  Additional duties can be imposed if DOC determines that imported goods are dumped and/or subsidized, and if the ITC also determines that the domestic industry is materially injured or threatened with such injury by reason of subject imports.

If the ITC and DOC make preliminary affirmative determinations, U.S. importers will be required to post cash deposits in the amount of the AD and/or CVD duty rates for all entries on or after the date DOC’s preliminary determination is published in the Federal Register.  The preliminary AD/CVD rates can change in the final DOC determination, especially if foreign producers and their governments participate fully in the investigations.

Senate Democrats Aim at Strengthening Antitrust Enforcement

On Friday, February 1, Senator Amy Klobuchar re-introduced two bills aimed at strengthening antitrust enforcement.

The co-sponsors include Senators Ed Markey (Dem-Massachusetts), Richard Blumenthal (Dem-Connecticut), Dick Durbin (Dem-Illinois) and Corey Booker (Dem-New Jersey).

On January 11, 2019, Congressman Peter Welch and Francis Rooney, members of Congress, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), urging the Commission to investigate Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (“BMS”) acquisition of Celgene.

The letter asks the FTC to examine how the transaction may harm competition with respect to horizontal overlaps and even complementary drugs.  Specifically, the letter points out that the acquisition allows BMS to increase its drug portfolio and leverage over pharmacy benefit managers (“PBMs”) when negotiating preferred drug placement on formularies and bundled discounts that can create “rebate walls”.

The transaction gives the FTC an opportunity to investigate a questionable contracting practice in the pharmaceutical drug industry known as a “rebate wall” or “rebate trap”.  Payors such as PBMs and health insurers obtain rebates on prescription drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers that have actually inflated the price of drugs and stifled the ability of rival drug manufacturers to effectively compete.  This practice is recognized by both the administration and industry players as anticompetitive.  Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has noted that rebate walls can prevent competition and new entrants into the system. Moreover, major drug manufacturers such as Pfizer and Shire have filed antitrust suits challenging rebate walls as antitrust violations.  In theory, rebates could have a positive impact on the prescription drug market if they led to lower prices and benefit consumers.  But, in practice, this is simply not the case.  Rebate walls distort the workings of the free market, result in higher drug prices, and reduce patients’ access to affordable branded drugs.

The government shutdown is likely to delay FTC merger reviews, but the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Second Request investigations will likely proceed as they normally do albeit with less staff.  Although the FTC’s Premerger Notification Office (PNO) and the DOJ’s Premerger Office remain open during regular hours to receive HSR filings, the FTC PNO will be operating with a limited staff and is unavailable to provide guidance about the administration of the HSR Act.  All merging parties have to wait the full initial waiting period before obtaining antitrust clearance, because the PNO is not granting early termination of waiting periods during the shutdown.

The staff attorneys who run investigations and negotiations at the Commission are out of the office, which means that parties are simply waiting while everything is on hold.  HSR waiting periods will continue to run during a government shutdown.  DOJ and FTC staff will continue to review premerger filings and conduct investigations to determine whether to challenge reported transactions under the antitrust laws.  Second Requests will continue to be issued and, if engaged in merger litigation, FTC and DOJ attorneys will notify opposing parties and the courts of the government shutdown and attempt to negotiate timing extensions and suspensions. If such relief is not available, they will continue to litigate the matter.

The DOJ and the FTC both issued contingency plans indicating that certain employees connected to antitrust enforcement within the Antitrust Division of the DOJ and the Bureau of Competition at the FTC will be excepted from the furlough and will continue to conduct antitrust enforcement activities.

On a day, that President Trump’s Department of Justice approved CVS’ acquisition of Aetna, allowing the vertical integration of a pharmacy benefit manager with a health insurer, he signed two bills into law intended to lower patients’ prescription costs: the Know Your Lowest Prices Act and the Patient Right (S. 2553) to Know Drug Prices Act (S. 2554). The bills prohibit health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (“PBMs”) from including so-called “gag clauses” in contracts with pharmacies. The clauses ban pharmacists from notifying patients when they could pay less for medicines without using their health insurance than they would for their copayment.

The Laws Should Reduce Patient Out-of-Pocket Spending by Eliminating Gag Clauses and Increase Drug Pricing Transparency

It is important to eliminate pharmacy gag clauses that prevent pharmacists from informing consumers of lower priced alternatives.  In a competitive market, we would expect providers would have the ability to guide consumers to the best products at the lowest cost.  The fact that PBMs had a practice of preventing pharmacies from disclosing this information means competition was not working as it should.

On September 5, 2018, Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the Federal Trade Commission’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing Tronox Ltd. (“Tronox”) from completing its proposed $2.4 billion acquisition of National Titanium Dioxide Company Ltd. (“Cristal”) until after a final ruling in the FTC’s administrative proceedings challenging the deal.  Federal Trade Commission v. Tronox Ltd. (D.D.C. Sept. 12, 2018).  It is a huge victory for the FTC.

Background

On February 21, 2017, Tronox inked a deal to buy Cristal for $1.67 billion and a 24% stake in the new entity. The transaction would have created the largest TiO2 company in the world, based on titanium chemical sales and nameplate capacity.

Changes in the economy, technology, international business, and data collection have all converged to make the FTC rethink its enforcement priorities going forward. In the spirit of the 1995 Pitofsky Hearings, the FTC on September 13, 2018 kicked off the first day of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century at Georgetown University Law Center. The public hearings are expected to open the debate up to the public and experts so the FTC can formulate a modern antitrust enforcement and consumer protection agenda.

The first day of hearings was broken into three panel discussions which broadly discussed the current landscape of antitrust law, U.S. economic competitiveness, and consumer protection and data privacy. The discussions focused on process and substance and how best to reframe FTC priorities to deal with complex 21st century issues.

Panelists drew lines in the sand when it came to whether the FTC is successfully navigating the landscape in an era of mega-mergers. Some panelists took the “populist” view that FTC’s merger guidelines are unhealthy for the overall economy and consumer welfare. The FTC has been guided by the “consumer welfare standard” when it comes to mergers, and has accommodated mergers that increase efficiencies and provide benefits in the form of lower prices to consumers.  Those in favor of the consumer welfare standard want to avoid a ‘big is bad’ mentality while keeping the interests of consumers in mind.  Proper antitrust enforcement is about protecting consumers, and protecting the competitive process, not about protecting competitors.  Some panelists argued, however, that the consumer welfare standard has failed to take into account important social concerns like privacy, rising social and income inequality, and decreased economic competition and dynamism. They pointed to recent studies seeming to vindicate the view that the FTC needs to reorient its enforcement procedures because the economy appears to be more concentrated and less dynamic than it used to be.

On Friday, September 14th, a Congressional briefing was held regarding the renegotiation of NAFTA and how certain changes under discussion could end up undermining the President’s Blueprint to lower drug prices in the United States by extending pharma monopolies.  One of the provisions under discussion would increase brand-name drug exclusivity.  Imposing additional brand-name drug exclusivity only keeps already high brand drug prices out of reach for patients for longer.

The panelists included representatives from Association for Accessible Medicines (Jeff Francer), Mylan (Marcie McClintic Coates), Patients for Affordable Drugs (David Mitchell), and AARP (Leigh Purvis).  Watch the briefing here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K3RQHB-oTE

They explained how one of most promising areas of drug research is the creation of generic biologic medicines, or biosimilars.  These drugs have great potential and often offer the best treatments for serious diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and others.  Yet, today, there are only four biosimilars on the market in the United States.

On August 7, 2018, the FTC’s Bureau of Competition announced a new new Model Timing Agreement for its merger reviews.  This is part of its initiatives to streamline its merger review process.

New FTC Model Timing Agreement

Merger investigations typically involve timing agreements, which provide an agreed-upon framework for the timing of certain steps in the investigation. Timing agreements provide the FTC staff with notice of when the parties plan to close the deal. Both parties and staff benefit from having such a framework established shortly after issuance of the Second Request as it allows staff and the parties to engage in substantive discussions with more certainty about the timing.

On August 2, 2018, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced that it would begin a review of legacy consent decrees “regulat[ing] how certain movie studios distribute films to movie theatres.”  The Paramount Consent Decrees have been in place for almost 70 years.  U.S. v. Paramount, 334 U.S. 131 (1948).  The Supreme Court decision forced major studios to sell their theater chains. Since that ruling, the Paramount decrees, have governed the way that studios do business with exhibitors. The decrees have prohibited certain “motion picture distribution practices, including block booking (bundling multiple films into one theatre license), circuit dealing (entering into one license that covered all theatres in a theatre circuit), resale price maintenance (setting minimum prices on movie tickets), and granting overbroad clearances (exclusive film licenses for specific geographic areas).”

The DOJ has indicated its review will take into account the changes in the identity of movie theatre owners, the increased number of movie theaters in a geographic area, the increased number of screens in movie theaters, and increased number of viewing platforms available to consumers.  The review is part of the Antitrust Division’s initiative to terminate long-standing antitrust judgment, including many that have no termination date.

“The Paramount Decrees have been on the books with no sunset provisions since 1949. Much has changed in the motion picture industry since that time,” Makan Delrahim, the DOJ’s antitrust chief, said in a statement. “It is high time that these and other legacy judgments are examined to determine whether they still serve to protect competition.”