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Partners HealthCare Deal Could Become Campaign Issue In Mass. Governor’s Race

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South Shore Hospital in Weymouth. (WBZ-TV)

South Shore Hospital in Weymouth. (WBZ-TV)

BOSTON (AP) — Attorney General Martha Coakley is coming under increasing fire from her Democratic and Republican rivals in the governor’s race over an agreement her office hammered out with Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts’ largest hospital and physicians’ network.

Coakley said the deal resolves her antitrust investigation into Partners and fundamentally alters the organization’s negotiating power for 10 years while barring Partners from raising its costs by more than the rate of inflation through 2020.

The deal paves the way for Partners to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health Systems, which owns Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. Under the agreement, Partners would be blocked from additional hospital expansion in eastern Massachusetts, including Worcester County, for the next seven years unless Coakley’s office reviews and approves the expansion.

The agreement, which must still be approved by a Suffolk Superior Court judge, quickly drew criticism — and not just from Coakley’s political rivals.

The state’s Health Policy Commission has said Partners’ proposed takeover of Hallmark would reinforce Partners’ market power, increase spending on medical care by up to $23 million per year and increase premiums for employers and consumers.

On Thursday, Coakley asked — and the court agreed — to delay a scheduled hearing on the proposed agreement until Sept. 29, after the release of the commission’s final report. A spokesman said Coakley retains the option to renegotiate portions of this agreement relating to Hallmark.

“We have agreed to, in fact encouraged, the court to hear from competitors and others in the public,” Coakley said. “The court’s allowed for that, which I think is terrific.”

Republican candidate Charlie Baker, former head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said the agreement is too complicated and too hard to enforce.

He said the deal should have focused on two or three items, like requiring Partners to post the prices of their medical services and freezing any expansion of their physician network.

“That is not a hard agreement to enforce,” he said. “I think it accomplishes many of the objectives that people have talked about wanting to accomplish.”

The two Democrats Coakley is facing in the primary are also criticizing the deal.

Donald Berwick has called the deal “a disservice to the interests of patients, families, communities and businesses throughout our state” and said it will permit the expansion of Partners’ market dominance in return for what he called “timid and unenforceable conditions of conduct.”

Berwick, a former head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has started an online petition calling on the court to throw out the agreement.

State Treasurer Steven Grossman, who is also seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has argued that the Partners settlement will increase health care spending, reduce competition and drive up premiums for employers and consumers.

“At a time when families, businesses, and governments are desperately trying to lower health care costs, under the terms of this deal, we find ourselves discussing only how much they will rise and on which date they may rise further,” Grossman wrote.

Independent gubernatorial hopeful Evan Falchuk, a former health care executive, said the agreement will let Partners continue its consolidation of the Massachusetts health care market.

A spokesman for Partners has said the agreement “supports our vision to provide more coordinated patient care, delivered closer to patients’ homes in lower cost settings.”

Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who isn’t seeking re-election, said recently that he was concerned about keeping health care costs down but was waiting for more analysis before taking a position on the Partners merger.

“I want to be convinced that it doesn’t add to health care costs,” Patrick said.

Coakley has continued to defend the deal.

“We believe it is a sound and a substantially good agreement,” Coakley said this week. “We welcome the court to listen to other people and weigh those things.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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