Healey, Mariano push to increase health cost panel’s power

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 7, 2015….Massachusetts hospitals are taking a wait-and-see approach to a new proposal strengthening the attorney general’s ability to regulate health care market transactions by increasing the legal authority of the state’s health policy commission.

Under a bill filed by House Minority Leader Ron Mariano and Attorney General Maura Healey, the commission’s reports on the health care marketplace would be given greater legal weight that would give the AG’s office a greater ability to step in if a merger or other transaction is determined to be harmful to the marketplace.

Under the current law, a negative HPC report does not establish presumptive legal truth that a proposal violates the state’s consumer protection law. Healey and Mariano’s bill would elevate a HPC report to the level where the AG’s office could seek a temporary block of a transaction between health organizations, according to Healey’s office.

In a statement late Tuesday, Massachusetts Hospital Association President and CEO Lynn Nicholas said the group wants “take the time to understand the implications of the bill’s provisions and to discuss those implications with our membership.”

“The bill substantially increases the authority of the Health Policy Commission and that is certainly worthy of public scrutiny and debate,” Nicholas said. “So we look forward to examining the proposed legislation and understanding the justification for the proposed increased power, how such power would be used, what benefits or potential unintended consequences it may lead to, and what assurances there will be that the rules for using it will be not only be fair to all, but also clear to all.”

At a State House press conference Tuesday, Mariano said it has always been important to “give teeth” to the commission’s role in determining the benefits of a transaction.

“This is a giant step in making the HPC the relevant decision-maker on health care costs in the commonwealth and I think that’s extremely important to all of us,” Mariano said.

Healey said the idea for the bill came after a conversation with Mariano a few weeks ago.

“Their referrals to the Attorney General’s office have enhanced our office’s ability to block mergers that will have a negative effect on costs and a negative effect for consumers across this state,” Healey said.

The bill has the support of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, according to Mariano. Healey and Mariano said they will work with the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans (MAHP), which represents insurers, to drum up support in the Senate.

“There is a growing body of research among policy experts that indicates that greater consolidation does not lead to better care and lower prices, but instead the enhanced bargaining power has resulted in higher costs and no notable improvement in quality,” MAHP President Lora Pellegrini said in a statement. “As premiums reflect the prices doctors, hospitals and other providers charge, it is essential that the Commonwealth examine whether changes in the market ultimately benefit consumers and employers through lower costs and, when necessary, prevent those transactions that will make health care more expensive.”

Nicholas, the head of the hospital group, said there’s consensus in Massachusetts that greater integration of care is a “positive development that can lead to improved care and greater efficiency.”

Nicholas said, “Within our state and across the country, this trend inevitably promotes consolidation among providers. There are multiple ways that consolidation can take place. During this critical time of change in healthcare, all share an interest in ensuring that providers are not sent confusing or mixed messages about the importance of integrating care and building networks of care.”

[Michael Norton contributed reporting]

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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