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South Shore Hospital merger backed

But officials want quality, jobs intact

WEYMOUTH — Elected officials told state regulators Wednesday they are open to the proposed acquisition of South Shore Hospital by Partners HealthCare System if it doesn’t boost health costs, hurt the quality of care, or lead to a loss of jobs at the hospital.

“The residents in town want to make sure that any merger doesn’t drive the cost of health care up,” Town Council member Michael Smart said at an afternoon public hearing convened by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The department would have to approve the plan for Boston-based Partners to become sole corporate owner of South Shore Hospital.

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Others, including South Shore Hospital employees and board members, said they believed the merger would strengthen the local hospital and improve operations.

“What South Shore does for the community is a huge service,” said Jennifer Green, night shift supervisor in the hospital’s emergency room. “The partnership with Partners will allow us to enhance that.”

The hearing, which drew about 200 residents and employees, was held in the basement of the Old South Union Church on Colombian Street, across from the hospital.

State Representative Jim Cantwell, a Democrat who represents nearby Marshfield and Scituate, said he wanted to make sure cardiovascular care and other specialized services will remain at the hospital and not be moved to Partners teaching hospitals in Boston. Noting that the Legislature passed a law last year aimed at slowing the growth of health costs, Cantwell asked, “As we try to squeeze savings, what does that do to the level of care?”

Cantwell and Smart were among those who said they had brought their concerns before executives at South Shore Hospital and Partners, which owns Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals. They said they were withholding judgment on the proposed merger for now until they were satisfied that their concerns would be addressed.

‘There are potential costs to joining a high-priced health care system such as Partners,’ including impact on workers’ wages, benefits.

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Leaders of South Shore and Partners said the alliance would create a stronger hospital network that could better coordinate care for area residents without pushing up prices.

South Shore Hospital chief executive Richard Aubut said it recently added 60 beds to accommodate more patients. It has about 3,700 employees and 900 employed and affiliated doctors. But at a time when health care is evolving, he said, “We have concluded that the necessary changes and investments would be too large and complicated for us to achieve independently.”

Partners chief executive Gary Gottlieb said merging the Weymouth hospital into Partners will “create a medical neighborhood on the South Shore,” with the local hospital providing routine and some advanced care and Brigham and Women’s handling more complex cases.

But Celia Wcislo, vice president at large for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers, warned “there are potential costs to joining a high-priced health care system such as Partners,” including a loss of local control over strategic decisions and a potential impact on workers’ wages and benefits.

Wcislo said she was neither supporting nor opposing the proposed alliance. But in addition to the Public Health department’s deliberations, she said, the Health Policy Commission — created by last year’s cost containment law — should take a hard look at the deal.

The proposed acquisition is also being examined by the Department of Justice, which is seeking to determine its impact on health costs and competition.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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