U.S. Senate antitrust panel to focus on telecomms, health, transport

WASHINGTON, March 14 Thu Mar 14, 2013 6:23pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 14 (Reuters) - The Senate's antitrust panel will focus on the transportation, communications and healthcare industries, among others, in coming weeks, Senator Amy Klobuchar, the panel's new chairwoman, said on Thursday.

Klobuchar told Reuters the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights would also likely hold an oversight hearing soon to hear from the new leadership at the Justice Department's antitrust division and the Federal Trade Commission.

But the subcommittee's first task will be considering US Airways' proposed deal to buy American Airlines. Witnesses will include US Airways Chief Executive Douglas Parker and AMR Corp and American Airlines President Thomas Horton, according to the committee's website.

The $11 billion all-stock deal, announced in February, would create the world's largest air carrier.

That deal, along with future telecommunications deals and certain mergers between healthcare companies, could have major effects on consumers, said Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

"We will see more mergers and it's certainly worth focusing in those areas," she said.

In the oversight hearing, which Klobuchar said would be held in April, the subcommittee would hear from Bill Baer, who was confirmed as head of the Justice Department's antitrust division in December, and Edith Ramirez, who became chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission in early March.

"We can go from deal to deal on the committee and that's always important, but we don't want to lose the general oversight. An oversight hearing is different than just being critical," said Klobuchar.

The FTC and Justice Department share the work of assessing mergers to ensure they are legal. The Justice Department also investigates allegations of corporate price fixing.

"I think that it will be good to get their view of where they're going," she said.

The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to stop a major beer deal involving Anheuser-Busch InBev SA and Grupo Modelo while the FTC is looking at high-profile mergers like the proposed Office Depot Inc deal to buy rival office supplier OfficeMax.

Klobuchar said the panel would also look at deals in which brand-name drug companies resolve patent litigation with potentially infringing generic firms by reaching a settlement that delays a generic version of a drug in exchange for a payment.

The Supreme Court is hearing a "pay-for-delay" case later this month, and Klobuchar has paired with Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, to introduce legislation to make such deals illegal.

The FTC said in January that brand name drug firms reached agreements with generic manufacturers 40 times in the latest fiscal year, delaying the arrival of cheaper drugs to market. That was up from 28 the previous year and the highest since the FTC started tracking them.

"These kinds of agreements, that essentially prohibit customers for getting cheaper drugs, are a real problem," said Klobuchar.

She also said that she would try again to push for legislation that would repeal antitrust exemptions for freight railroads.

Power companies, especially smaller ones, back the measure because they say railroads have sharply raised rates for shipping coal. Railroads say the exemptions are necessary for their survival.