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Clergy push to curb health costs

The next big movement in Massachusetts health care may come not from the state’s world-famous hospitals or its cutting-edge research labs, but from houses of worship.

Stepping up pressure on the health care industry to control spiraling costs, which are crimping family and government budgets, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization will host a forum next Tuesday at Temple Israel in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area to grill hospital and insurance leaders about the affordability of medical care.

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Top executives of major hospital groups, such as Partners HealthCare System, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Steward Health Care System, and leading insurers, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Tufts Health Plan, have accepted invitations to the event, which is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m.

The executives are expected to address about 150 leaders of Boston area churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as state government officials who regulate the Massachusetts health care market, about efforts to hold down health costs and premiums in an economy that remains tenuous.

“We’re seeing this as a vehicle for accountability,” said the Rev. Burns Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a coalition of clergy and community groups that has been pressing social justice campaigns ranging from improving public schools to creating more affordable housing. “We want consumers to have a voice and to hold the [health care] stakeholders accountable.”

The interfaith organization backed the state’s landmark 2006 health care law, which expanded access to care by establishing a mandate requiring residents to buy insurance or pay a penalty. But until now, the group has been less involved in the push to contain costs, viewed by business leaders and the Patrick administration as a new phase of the health care overhaul.

Interfaith group leaders said they decided to weigh in on behalf of consumers partly because increased insurance premiums, along with steadily rising copayments and deductibles, are creating a burden for middle-class and low-income parishioners. At the same time, they said, the soaring cost of employee and retiree medical care is preventing state and local governments from investing more in areas such as housing, education, and transportation.

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“These rising health care costs have the effect of lowering wages, which can exacerbate the growing divide of income and wealth,” said Larry Gordon, an organizer for the group.

A second state health care law, passed last year, seeks to hold down costs by limiting increases in total medical spending — the price of health services multiplied by the volume of care reimbursed by private and public payers — to the Massachusetts growth rate, projected to be 3.6 percent this year.

The law also created the Health Policy Commission, charged with monitoring cost trends and reviewing health care mergers and other alliances that could drive up expenses.

Skeptics have questioned whether the watchdog panel can succeed in reining in costs, noting it lacks power under the law to approve prices or reject mergers or acquisitions. Interfaith leaders say part of their goal is to use their standing to strengthen the commission.

“We want to lift up the commission,” Stanfield said. “We want them to know we’re watching, and we want the [health care] providers and insurers to take them seriously.”

Health Policy Commission leaders will speak at Tuesday’s forum, along with Aron Boros, executive director of the state Center for Health Information Analysis, which is generating data to support the commission.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office has produced reports documenting the gap between higher and lower paid hospitals and doctors, will also speak.

Industry leaders scheduled to speak include Gary Gottlieb, chief executive of Partners; Kevin Tabb, chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess; Ralph de la Torre, chief executive of Steward; Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center; Andrew Dreyfus, chief executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield; James Roosevelt Jr., chief executive of Tufts Health Plan; Deborah Enos, chief executive of the Partners-owned Neighborhood Health Plan; and, Jay Gonzalez, chief executive of CeltiCare Health Plan of Massachusetts.

Stanfield said one of his organization’s goals is to make the health care executives uncomfortable about the effect of rising costs on families and employers.

“A little bit of tension makes for a good action,” he said.

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

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