State panel may further analyze Partners deal

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 1, 2014…..The independent agency that has been critical of a consent judgment reached by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office and Partners HealthCare System is considering whether to weigh in again after Coakley announced modifications to the agreement last week.

The agreement is before a Superior Court judge, who on Monday voiced concerns about cost implications, extended the public comment period until Oct. 21, and set the next hearing date for Nov. 10.

Years in the making and representing a major health care transaction, the agreement has been on hold as the commission reviewed its impact. The consent judgment was first announced in June.

The attorney general’s office will submit its own response to the new round of public comments by Oct. 31, after offering an 80-page response that followed an earlier round of public comments.

Dr. Wendy Everett, the vice chair of the 11-member Health Policy Commission, said on Wednesday it isn’t clear yet whether more analysis from the commission is warranted. But Everett and two other commission officials said the panel is considering whether to offer additional analysis.

In reports earlier this year, the commission said health care costs would rise up to $49 million a year if Partners merged with Hallmark Health System in northeastern Massachusetts and acquired South Shore Hospital. A coalition of Partners’ competitors, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Atrius Health and Tufts Medical Center, has also criticized the agreement.

Partners and Coakley argue the agreement will help control rising costs and significantly alters Partners’ negotiating power for up to 10 years, while standing as a better alternative to anti-trust litigation. The agreement also restricts the growth of physician networks in the Partners system for five years and inhibits Partners from expanding into eastern Massachusetts and Worcester County over seven years.

Under the agreement, Partners would also fund a compliance monitor picked by the attorney general’s office.

The two parties amended the agreement last week to cap Hallmark prices for six and a half years to general inflation or medical inflation, whichever ends up being lower.

While saying the Hallmark price cap, similar to the one imposed in the agreement on South Shore Hospital, has “real value” and was called for by the commission, commission member Paul Hattis added, “I would say the commission has spoken about its thoughts about the overall settlement and I stand by our commission reports and findings of the overall settlement.”

Hattis said the judge, Janet Sanders, is wrestling with whether to approve the settlement or consider it in the larger context of health care policy in Massachusetts, which Partners dominates as its largest health care provider. Partners is also the Bay State’s largest private employer, according to its website.

“There’s a tension there and I applaud the fact that she’s struggling with that tension,” said Hattis, a Coakley appointee to the commission who has been outspoken about his concerns about the transaction.

Hattis noted that the judge, in some of her court orders, made “laudatory” comments about the Health Policy Commission’s role and its analysis of Partners’ proposed transaction.

Hattis and Everett, speaking after Wednesday’s meeting of the commission’s cost trends and market performance committee, offered their own words of praise for the judge.

Everett, the president of a national health policy research institute, said Sanders is doing a “brilliant job” of managing the “policy and politics” of the consent judgment.

Asked whether the judge should look at the judgment in the context of the Massachusetts health care market as a whole, Everett said, “I would probably leave it up to her.”

Hattis sat in the back row during Monday’s hearing, in which Sanders heard from attorneys from Coakley’s office, Partners and the three hospitals. The attorneys urged Sanders to focus on the agreement in front of her, rather than attempting fixes to the overall Massachusetts health care system.

Hattis, an associate professor in Tufts University Medical School’s Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, said he was there in his role as a consumer advocate.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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