Updated 7:15 p.m.
BOSTON — On her first Monday morning as Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey stepped into a fight that may well continue through her first term. Healey said, in short, that Partners HealthCare should not be allowed to acquire South Shore Hospital and that she would sue to block the acquisition.
Her predecessor, Martha Coakley, had the option of suing Partners, but chose instead to negotiate concessions. In a deal filed in court by Coakley, Partners would be able to add at least three more hospitals — South Shore and two owned by Hallmark Health — but would have to keep price increases in line with inflation for six and half years and cap the size of its physician group for five years.
Healey raised several concerns about the agreement in a brief filed in court Monday. She suggests that the physician cap is too lax and that the terms of the deal are too short. When the deal expires, "Partners may wield market leverage that is greater than its current, already significant market leverage," Healey said.
Healey said she wants proof that Partners has figured out how to use its size to save money.
"I would prefer to reverse the order of events and instead consider any future proposed Partners' expansion only after Partners demonstrates an ability to contribute to health care cost containment in Massachusetts."
Healey hinted at these concerns during her campaign. She said Monday that "new evidence" has come to light during court proceedings on the Partners deal. She mentioned documents filed by health insurers, economists and the Health Policy Commission, but did not list proof that Partners continues to contribute to rising health care prices.
Partners responded to Healey's brief with a statement.
"We remain deeply committed to working with South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health in order to deliver more coordinated care to patients in those communities at lower costs. We believe strongly in this vision and we await the Judge’s ruling on the proposed consent judgment," wrote Partners' VP for communications, Rich Copp.
Perhaps we'll hear more if Judge Janet Sanders calls the parties in for a hearing before she issues her decision on the agreement.
Some who are watching or have a role in this health care drama assume Sanders will reject the deal now that Healey has spelled out her concerns.
"I think it's quite likely [Sanders] will go along with [Healey]," said Health Policy Commission chairman Stuart Altman. The commission found that a merger of Partners and South Shore Hospital would increase health care costs by $23 million to $26 million a year, a finding Partners disputed.
Altman says a lawsuit to block Partners would be productive for the state because a court would have to weigh in on "how big is too big. There is value in organizations getting bigger so that they have enough breadth of care to be effective." But, Altman said, "with the addition of South Shore, would Partners be too big to provide care efficiently? That's what the AG is now saying."
Healey says she has not decided if she would sue to block the proposed merger of Partners and Hallmark Health. She is not, she stresses, sending a message that Partners can't get any bigger.