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The Boston Globe

Business

Shirley Leung

Steward again a big backer of Martha Coakley

Steward workers and Ralph de la Torre, its charismatic CEO, have come out for Martha Coakley in a big way.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff (left);AP/File

Steward workers and Ralph de la Torre, its charismatic CEO, have come out for Martha Coakley in a big way.

Is supporting Martha Coakley just what the doctor ordered at Steward Health Care, the chain of community hospitals that is going through growing pains?

Its executives have been aggressively filling the attorney general’s gubernatorial war chest, donating more than $12,000 since December, according to campaign filings. By comparison, Republican candidate Charlie Baker captured $1,075 from Steward employees, while Democratic candidate and state Treasurer Steve Grossman got $500.

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No other major health care company has come out as strongly for a single gubernatorial candidate this season. Not even Baker’s old company, Harvard Pilgrim, where he served as CEO; employees there have so far given about $5,300. Meanwhile, doctors at Partners HealthCare are throwing support behind physician Don Berwick with about $7,000 in contributions, but other executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield and Tufts Health Plan have largely remained neutral.

The amount of Coakley money associated with Steward could be far higher when you add in donations from relatives and others raised by the for-profit hospital chain’s employees on their own. It wouldn’t be the first time Steward workers and Ralph de la Torre, its charismatic CEO, have come out for Coakley in a big way.

During her failed bid for US Senate in 2010, de la Torre and his employees gave her more than $23,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He even hosted a fund-raiser at his Newton home for Coakley, and he contributed the individual maximum of $4,800 to her campaign.

Back then, Coakley was set to review the $830 million proposed acquisition of Caritas Christi Health Care by the New York buyout firm Cerberus Capital Management. Cerberus created Steward to run Caritas, the long-struggling chain of six Catholic hospitals whose flagship is St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton. Some worried about what a big buyout firm might do to small community hospitals, while others said Steward offered the best hope of keeping Caritas afloat. The AG eventually recommended in favor of the acquisition.

Why is de la Torre now backing Coakley?

“I have been a supporter of Martha Coakley, as I have many Democratic candidates, including Deval Patrick and Barack Obama, because I share their social justice values,” de la Torre said in a statement responding to my questions. “Those values are consistent with the work Steward does every day delivering affordable, high-quality health care in blue-collar communities across Massachusetts.”

So that’s the official word.

But conspiracy theorists and cynics, of whom there are many in this town, will say it’s because Steward remains under the watchful eye of Coakley’s office. Before blessing the Caritas deal, the attorney general imposed a number of conditions on the transaction, including a five-year review period that doesn’t expire until November 2015.

Coakley is also seen as Steward’s BFF, because she has been a thorn in the side of rivalPartners, the high-cost health care juggernaut that has been trying to get even bigger and totally rule the medical business in Massachusetts. She, along with the US Justice Department, have been investigating allegations of anticompetitive practices by Partners, which owns hospitals such as Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s.

Steward fashions itself as the lower-cost alternative, with its 10 community hospitals that could siphon basic care business from Partners and other expensive centers.

As governor, Coakley could play a role in Steward’s future. Everyone assumed it would be sold this year, because that’s what greedy private equity firms do — acquire something dirt-cheap and try to sell for a tidy profit a few years later. De la Torre told my colleague Rob Weisman last month that Steward isn’t currently for sale. But if the company were to be sold or broken up in the future, the state would need to approve any transactions.

With so much money flowing from Steward, you’ve got to wonder if Coakley can stay objective. Her camp says yes because, politicking aside, she’s always been about controlling health care costs. Her “sole motivation” has been protecting consumers and ensuring they have affordable care options, explains campaign manager Tim Foley.

Now some companies hedge their bets on candidates, and after an afternoon of questions, a Steward spokeswoman told me it’s early in the election season and there are fervent Baker supporters at the company, as well. “We expect to balance out,” she said.

Health care, like political campaigns, involves a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, and it can be hard to keep up.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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