ABR Lawsuit: The Amended Complaint

If you’ve been keeping up, the original motion to dismiss filed by the ABR was granted by the court, basically parroting the similar intially dismissed case filed against the ABIM.

So an amended complaint was filed on January 24, 2020.

(Also, a reminder: I’m still not a lawyer.)

The Honorable Jorge Alonso’s opinion was basically: “I’m not convinced initial certification and MOC are separate products. They seem like two parts of one product: ABR certification. That used to be a one-time thing and now it’s not—tough luck.” As such, you can’t illegally tie the two components together if they’re really two aspects of one thing. The logic rests largely on the established interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act that if there is no separate market for the contended service, then you can’t argue that it’s an illegal tie-in. Everything else in the complaint either relies on that to matter or was a “conclusory” allegation (an accusation not demonstrably supported by facts).

The amended complaint, dated January 24, 2020, spends a lot of time describing MOC in lines of another umbrella term: a continuing professional development (“CPD”) product (i.e. CME). Just because you creatively title your CPD product “MOC” after selling one-time initial certifications for over half a century doesn’t change what it is. The amended complaint says that MOC is basically a CME product, and, hey, look, there are tons of those around and a robust market to buy them. While doing so, the plaintiff attorneys also point out that none of those other CPD providers sell initial certification. Therefore, ipso facto, there is a separate market, and the ABR is being naughty.

Everything in the suit, including the relevance of some of the great zingers in the filing, rests on convincing the judge that IC and MOC are different products. There may be a practical monopoly, but so far no judge in these ABMS lawsuits has been interested in allowing a challenge to the party-line interpretation to stand and let these suits go to trial. To progress, MOC must be interpreted as just another CPD product. Without that, it’s all dead in the water, and interesting bits such as the inbreeding between the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and the ABMS (page 17) don’t get to make it to a jury’s ears (and I suspect a trial would probably be more of a downhill victory in court than the case getting through the judge to a trial in the first place).

For Alonso, I suspect it will be hard to convince him that MOC = CPD. Clearly MOC is basically CPD, but not all CPD is exactly “MOC” at least so far as MOC has been engendered by the ABMS specialties (whether that form is meaningful or valid, unfortunately, is something the judge had no interest in entertaining in his granting of the defense’s motion to dismiss). It’s not the ABR’s “fault” that its “voluntary” certification product has become a requirement for hospital credentialing or insurance panel acceptance.

I mean I’m pretty convinced, and the history outlined in the suit is both instructive and compelling (seriously, read it), but I’m just a radiologist.

And while there is more supporting evidence provided in the amended filing (e.g. see the interesting points 51-56 starting on page 12), there’s also nothing here to force him to change his mind. The ABR can argue, bullshittingly, for example, that MOC includes both a knowledge assessment, CME compliance, and a QI project component and is, therefore, a more holistic view of the practicing radiologist. We know this is largely nonsense. The ABR is a profitable question-bank company where the questions are largely written for free by volunteers. But that fact doesn’t necessarily mean the ABR itself cannot change the terms of its own certification product.

And what’s really at stake here?

Plaintiff asks only that ABR be prevented from revoking the certifications of radiologists who do not also buy MOC, and that ABR report, without any qualification, whether radiologists have purchased an ABR certification, regardless of whether they have also later bought MOC.

I’m not that hopeful anything like that will come to pass.

But a real solution that could actually benefit the field of radiology would probably need to be one of two (or both things): a well-organized competing board with a clearly superior product that gets buy-in from residencies and the ACR and subsequently organizational and licensure stakeholders. I believe this would need to include initial certification to really have a chance of meaningful impact and is extremely unlikely (after all, the ABR managed to get the fledgling “National Board of Radiology” shut down within a few months of its creation). Or, continued grassroots opposition culminates in serious ABR structural reform. This would also likely require substantial and unyielding support of the ACR and other radiology organizations.

But since you’re here, I’ve pulled some choice quotations for your reading pleasure:

Through 2017, the last year for which data is publicly available, ABR has forced tens of  thousands of radiologists to buy its redundant, worthless, and superfluous CPD product or have their certifications revoked, realizing an estimated $90 million in MOC-related fees and revenue as a result.

According to a medical journal article written by three ABMS employees in 2016, “underlying the creation” of this new product was its emphasis, unlike certification, on “performance in preference to knowledge” with its “focus on improvement rather than on elimination of candidates” for entry into a specialized practice of medicine.

So, yes, exactly what you would expect: multiple-choice questions.

If instead of the labels “initial certification” and “maintenance of certification” the original and accurate terminology of “certification” and “continuous professional development” is substituted, ABR’s tying, forcing, and other anti-competitive conduct becomes clear. Creative product labeling cannot insulate ABR from the truth that certification and MOC are separate and distinct.

Thus, MOC is nothing more than a device to force radiologists to pay tens of millions of dollars in MOC-related fees for a redundant, worthless, and superfluous CPD product.

Little information has been made available by ABR about how radiologists will know whether they are “passing” OLA, other than that the “passing standard” will “vary slightly” among radiologists, without an explanation of what “slightly” means.

If OLA is criterion-referenced via Angoff panels as the Core and Certifying exams are reported to be, then the passing thresholds should be set ahead of time (even if that threshold is a binary TBI or no?) Assuming questions of varying difficulty are administered in the correct frequencies, there should be a predetermined true percentage correct passing threshold. Well, what is it?

In short, radiologists need spend as few as 52 minutes per year (one minute for each of 52 questions) answering only those questions they choose to answer, that are designed so as not to require studying, and for which ABR anticipates neither incorrect answers nor a high failure rate. Because OLA has been designed so that all radiologists pass, it validates only ABR’s ability to force radiologists to purchase MOC and continue charging supra-competitive monopoly prices for MOC.

ABR is not a “self”-regulatory body in any meaningful sense for, among other reasons, its complete lack of accountability. Unlike the medical boards of the individual States, for example, as alleged above, ABR is a revenue-driven entity beholden to its own financial interests and those of its Governors, Trustees, management, officers, and employees. ABR itself is not subject to legislative, regulatory, administrative, or other oversight by any other person, entity, or organization. It answers to no one, much less to the radiologist community which it brazenly claims to self-regulate.

It took about 9 months for the initial dismissal, but I suspect we’ll have some more news in the spring.

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