Healey backs bill to bolster hospital watchdog


This was originally posted on The Boston Globe's website

Legal standing of policy group’s reports would be strengthened

By Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

Attorney General Maura Healey will back a measure to strengthen the role of the state agency that reviews hospital mergers and give her office more power to block deals that are projected to raise health costs for consumers.

The bill, to be filed in the Legislature Tuesday, would give reports issued by the Health Policy Commission stronger legal standing, providing enough evidence by themselves for the attorney general to obtain court orders to temporarily stop mergers.

“It will force folks to take the [commission] seriously and make sure they get their ducks in a row before they go before the HPC,” said the House majority leader, Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation.

A 2012 state law created the Health Policy Commission as a watchdog agency to study health care deals and their effects on medical spending. The commission cannot block deals, but it can refer its reports to the attorney general for further review when it is concerned that a merger would raise health care prices and spending. But the weight those reports should receive in the legal process has been unclear.

The role of the commission became an issue last year after it issued critical reports on Partners HealthCare’s attempts to acquire three community hospitals.

The commission found that Partners’ proposed takeover of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and Hallmark Health System’s hospitals in Medford and Melrose together could raise medical spending by as much as $49 million a year, while increasing the market power of Partners, the largest health system in the state.

The attorney general at the time, Martha Coakley, decided to strike a settlement with Partners to allow the mergers to go ahead, in part because she did not believe she had enough evidence to stop the mergers in court.

Under the proposed legislation, the commission’s reports could have provided such evidence, supporters said.

Ultimately, a Suffolk Superior Court judge rejected the settlement and Partners abandoned the South Shore acquisition. It has yet to decide whether to proceed with the takeover of Hallmark.

The Partners case prompted Healey, who opposed the mergers, to back the legislation.

“By giving more teeth to HPC referrals, this bill is another important step in our work to control health costs for families and businesses,” said Christopher Loh, a spokesman for Healey.

The measure, said Stuart Altman, chairman of the Health Policy Commission, “makes clear that we are very much part of the process. It makes clear that [the attorney general] really can use our results and really must use them.”

A Partners spokesman declined to comment because he had not seen the proposal.

Lora M. Pellegrini, chief executive of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, which represents insurers, voiced support for the legislation.

“If the bill were to become law,” she said, “I think employers and consumers could have confidence that transactions would bring value to the marketplace and not just be about providers using their leverage to drive up higher prices.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey
can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com.

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