An outpatient medical care company owned by UnitedHealth Group was hit with a federal indictment Thursday in Texas for allegedly agreeing with competitors not to recruit each other's senior-level employees.

A federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Surgical Care Affiliates, one of the largest U.S. providers of outpatient care — the first charges in an ongoing investigation of "employee allocation agreements," the U.S. Justice Department said in a media statement.

"The charges demonstrate the Antitrust Division's continued commitment to criminally prosecute collusion in America's labor markets," Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim said in the statement.

Law enforcement "will ensure that companies who illegally deprive employees of competitive opportunities are not immune from our antitrust laws."

In a statement, Surgical Care Affiliates said it "will vigorously defend itself against these unjustified allegations."

The government's position, the company continued, "represents a novel application of the antitrust laws as they relate to employee recruitment, for which there is no precedent or foundation."

Suburban Chicago-based Surgical Care Affiliates said the indictment involves conduct that allegedly occurred before the company was purchased by UnitedHealth in 2017. Prosecutors claim violations of the Sherman Act started as early as 2010 and went into 2017.

Minnetonka-based United­Health, the nation's largest health insurer, bought Surgical Care Affiliates for $2.3 billion.

The deal was part of United's growing effort to provide health care directly to patients through its Eden Prairie-based Optum division. Optum also is a pharmaceutical benefit manager and provider of health care IT services.

Surgical Care Affiliates has more than 230 facilities in 35 states; the centers offer an alternative to hospital care for procedures that don't require an overnight stay.

The company said that the antitrust allegations don't involve its ambulatory surgery centers or "their joint owners, physician partners or current leadership."

The indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court in Dallas, charges Surgical Care Affiliates of "entering into and engaging in two separate bilateral conspiracies with other health care companies," neither of which were named. One of the companies is based in Texas; the other, in Colorado.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003