Union trusts and self-funded employer plans are heading toward a long state court jury trial, in San Francisco, over a massive antitrust dispute with Sutter Health — a large, nonprofit, California-based health system.
The UFCW & Employers Trust (UEBT) and about 1,500 other health plans have accused Sutter Health of using provider network manipulation, lack of price disclosure, and other means to keep its hospital services prices as much as 56% higher than Northern California competitors’ prices, and to contribute to Northern California inpatient care costing about 38% more than inpatient care in the Los Angeles area.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo issued an order in August that calls for formal jury selection for the trial to start Sept. 23.
The order reveals that the parties in the case — UFCW & Employers Benefit Trust on behalf of itself and all others similarly situated, v. Sutter Health, et al. — are submitting hundreds of thousands of pages of documents as exhibits, and that giving the parties a chance to review the documents, and to ask that some of the documents be kept confidential, has been be a major project.
Court officials are expecting the trial to be hard on the jurors. The San Francisco jury commissioner subpoenaed citizens to come in for jury selection panels every day from Sept. 3 through Sept. 6. The judge set aside time throughout that week to hear all of the requests from prospective jurors who would be asking to be excluded from the jury due to hardship, according to the minutes from an Aug. 30 pretrial hearing.
“The court indicates we may need to add hardship additional jury panels in order to obtain enough jurors for selection,” according to the pretrial hearing minutes.
The lead plaintiff in the case, UEBT, helps buy and manage health benefits and other benefits for members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in California.
In 2014, when UEBT filed one of the suits that started the current litigation, UEBT was running self-funded health plans that were providing health coverage for about 60,000 employees, retirees and dependents.
UEBT is representing a class that includes all self-funded health plans that operate under California law and that have used Sutter Health prices that were set by contracts between Sutter Health and Aetna, Anthem, Blue Shield of California, Cigna Corp. or UnitedHealth between 2013 and the present.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a suit of his own in 2018, and his suit is being considered together with the UEBT case.