Banning noncompete contracts for medical staff riles hospitals

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Dr. Jacqui O’Kane took a job with a hospital in southern Georgia in 2020, as the lone doctor in a primary care clinic in a small town that’s a medically underserved area. She soon attracted nearly 3,000 patients.

But she said the hospital pressed her to take more new patients, so she had to work nights and weekends — not ideal for the mother of two young daughters. She thought about opening her own practice in town, which would give her more control over her schedule.

The problem was that her three-year contract included a noncompete clause barring her from practicing within 50 miles of the hospital for two years after it ended.

So, she has decided to join a practice in South Carolina. That means she and her husband will sell their house, move hundreds of miles, and enroll their children in a new school.

“I know my patients very well, and I feel like I’m being forced to abandon them,” she said. “But I can’t stay in this job because it’s unhealthy for me to work this much.”

In January, the Federal Trade Commission proposed to end predicaments like O’Kane’s by prohibiting noncompete clauses in employment contracts. “The freedom to change jobs is core to economic liberty and to a competitive, thriving economy,” said Lina Khan, the FTC chairperson.

The proposed rule would prohibit employment contract provisions that block employees or contractors from working for a competing employer when they move on, or from starting a competing business. Such contracts typically bar people from working within a certain geographic area for a period after the job ends.

The FTC estimates that 30 million workers are bound by noncompete clauses. It says ending those provisions would boost economic competition, reduce prices, and increase workers’ earnings overall by up to $296 billion a year.

Eliminating noncompete contracts would allow doctors to practice wherever their services are needed, which would improve patients’ access to care. They say it would free them to speak out about unsafe conditions for patients, since they wouldn’t have to worry about getting fired and not being able to continue working in their community.

But the FTC’s proposal faces resistance from employers in all industries, including hospitals and private equity-backed medical groups that employ thousands of physicians, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals.

It’s about money for them, too. They say eliminating noncompetes would drive up the cost of hospital care because hospitals would have to pay physicians more to keep them. They also say noncompete clauses are necessary to protect proprietary information and investments in employee training, and to prevent employees from taking clients and patients with them when they leave.

Business and hospital groups are likely to sue to block the rule, arguing that Congress hasn’t authorized the commission to regulate noncompete clauses. While there is bipartisan support in Congress for legislation that would restrict noncompete clauses and authorize FTC action, the bill hasn’t advanced; similar legislation stalled in past years.

Health care industry groups hope to block any change with the argument that the FTC lacks statutory authority to regulate nonprofit, or tax-exempt, hospitals, which account for nearly 60% of all U.S. community hospitals. In the proposed rule, the FTC acknowledged that entities not conducting business for profit may not be subject to the rule because they are exempt from coverage under the Federal Trade Commission Act, the law that gives the agency its authority.

“The rule would create an unlevel playing field because we compete with nonprofit and public hospitals that wouldn’t be subject to it,” said Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents for-profit hospital systems.

But other experts aren’t sure the FTC lacks authority over nonprofits. While the FTC Act exempts nonprofits, the commission has acted many times under the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act, federal antitrust laws used to block anti-competitive conduct by nonprofit hospital systems. It’s not clear whether the FTC will clarify this issue before it finalizes the rule.

“We fully support having the noncompete ban apply to all hospitals,” said Dr. Jonathan Jones, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, half of whose members are bound by noncompetes.

California, North Dakota, and Oklahoma already ban enforcement of noncompete clauses for all employees, while six other states prohibit enforcement of noncompete clauses for physicians. Even in states without bans, judges have invalidated noncompetes when they found them to be overbroad or unreasonable.

But it can cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to challenge a noncompete clause, and other employers may not want to take the risk of hiring a person in the middle of a legal fight, said Luke Campbell, a Seattle attorney who represents physicians.

The FTC rule also would bar the use of nondisclosure or training repayment agreements in employment contracts if they functioned as de facto noncompetes.

Hospitals often require nurses to sign training repayment agreement provisions, called TRAPs, which nursing groups say lock nurses into jobs by demanding they pay as much as $20,000, for what’s essentially job orientation, if they leave before two years. National Nurses United, a labor union, wants the FTC to explicitly prohibit TRAPs.

As of last year, nearly three-quarters of all U.S. physicians were employed by hospital systems or other companies, with many working under noncompete agreements. A 2018 survey found that nearly half of primary care physicians in California, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas were bound by noncompetes.

Private equity-owned staffing firms such as TeamHealth, Envision Healthcare, and Sound Physicians, which provide emergency physicians and other medical professionals to work in hospitals, commonly use noncompete provisions. None of those three companies agreed to talk about their employment contracts. As for-profit employers, noncompete clauses in their contracts clearly would be barred even if their employees were working in nonprofit hospitals.

Hospitals, insurers, and physician-owned medical groups also use noncompetes in employing doctors and other medical professionals.

Hospital-based doctors — emergency physicians, anesthesiologists, hospitalists, radiologists, and pathologists — refute the industry’s argument that they would take patients or proprietary information with them.

“We don’t have any trade secrets and we don’t have the capability of stealing patients because we don’t have our own patient referral base,” said Dr. Robert McNamara, the chair of emergency medicine at Temple University.

Instead, he said, noncompetes are a way for the physician staffing firms to lock in their contracts with hospitals. “The private equity group can say to the hospital, ‘You might not like what we’re doing, but if you get rid of us, every single one of your doctors must be replaced,’” McNamara said.

Dr. Vanessa Urbina, a general practice physician in central Florida, also worries about the impact on patients. She left a corporate-owned medical practice in Altamonte Springs last year because of what she said was an abusive environment. Hobbled by a noncompete agreement she signed forbidding her from practicing within 15 miles of the clinic, she opened her own primary care clinic in rural Mount Dora, 19 miles away.

She had to stay in the area because of a child custody agreement. Fighting the noncompete cost her $25,000 in legal fees and lost income. Even though she now must drive farther to transport her daughter to school and back, she’s happier in her new practice. But she’s angry she can’t take care of her former patients.

“They forced me to abandon my patients,” she said. “Now they have to wait three months for an appointment. Noncompetes should be illegal.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.