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Closer look at Partners deal urged

Interfaith group calls for independent scrutiny of deal struck between Coakley’s office and Partners

The Rev. Burns Stanfield (above) said his group is concerned the high price of medical care shortchanges other needs.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Rev. Burns Stanfield (above) said his group is concerned the high price of medical care shortchanges other needs.

Saying it’s worried that mounting medical costs are squeezing family and government budgets, a group that is representing dozens of Boston-area religious congregations wants the state Health Policy Commission to determine whether a pending deal between Attorney General Martha Coakley and Partners HealthCare System will make health care more affordable.

Leaders of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization hope to bring more attention to a tentative pact that would allow Partners to complete a takeover of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, while placing limits on how much the state’s largest health care provider can charge for services and restricting its expansion for five to 10 years.

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The agreement could be submitted to Suffolk Superior Court for final approval as early as next week.

Executives at competing Massachusetts hospitals and health insurance companies have said privately that the deal could reinforce the disparity between payments made to Partners hospitals and their rivals. So far, however, they have not publicly opposed the pact, which ended a long-running antitrust investigation by Coakley and the US Department of Justice.

But it’s not clear the agreement between Partners and Coakley’s office will be open to public scrutiny before it is filed with a judge. The chairman of the Health Policy Commission, created in 2012 as a watchdog agency charged with holding down the price of medical care, says it lacks the legal authority to independently assess the deal.

“This agreement has potentially very significant implications for efforts to control health costs,” the interfaith organization’s president, the Rev. Burns Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston, wrote in a letter to the Health Policy Commission.

“We believe that the [commission] should review and evaluate the agreement, and then render a judgment as to whether in your opinion it is, or is not, in the interests of the Commonwealth.”

‘This agreement has . . . very significant implications for efforts to control health costs.’

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Under the tentative pact reached last month, a court-appointed monitor would gauge Partners’ compliance. But while agreed-to provisions were summarized in a statement from Coakley’s office, and in a letter to Partners employees from chief executive Gary L. Gottlieb, neither party has released formal details of the agreement.

The interfaith group waded into the debate over medical care prices last September when it invited leaders of the area’s largest hospitals and health insurers to a meeting at Temple Israel in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area — and grilled them on what they could do to blunt the impact of soaring health costs.

Stanfield, in an interview, said his organization lobbied for the law that gave rise to the Health Policy Commission because it was concerned the price of medical care was making it difficult for people and governments to invest in other areas, such as education.

“We worked hard for the legislation that created this process and we want the process to be respected,” he said.

At a commission meeting May 22, just days after the deal between Coakley’s office and Partners was disclosed, commission member Paul Hattis, who is on the strategy team of the interfaith group, said he wanted the commission to hear more details from the parties about their tentative settlement — and to offer modifications — before it is submitted to a judge. Commission chairman Stuart Altman said Hattis’s request prompted the agency’s general counsel, Lois Johnson, to research whether it had the power to review the agreement. She concluded it did not, Altman said.

“We don’t have the authority to review what the AG does,” Altman said. “The agreement between Partners and the AG has to go before a judge, who can approve it or disapprove it.”

That stance was reiterated in a letter sent Friday to Stanfield from Altman and the commission’s executive director, David Seltz, who insisted the cost-containment law gives them no right to assess Coakley's “law enforcement investigation.”

The letter, however, promised an in-person meeting with representatives of the interfaith group and monitoring of “changes resulting from any final agreement” between Coakley and Partners executives.

Larry Gordon, an organizer for the interfaith organization, conceded the commission doesn’t have the power to review the deal, but he said the law that created the oversight board doesn’t expressly prohibit a review. “We think there should be a public process, and it should be run by the Health Policy Commission,” he said.

Partners spokesman Rich Copp said the system’s planned acquisitions of area hospitals and doctors groups already has been the subject of intensive scrutiny.

“For more than two years, we have engaged in an open and public process with state officials, the Health Policy Commission, the Department of Public Health, and the media to detail how our proposed partnerships with South Shore Hospital, Hallmark Health System, and Harbor Medical Associates will result in more coordinated patient care while helping to rein in cost growth,” Copp said.

“We will continue to follow the public process established by the state’s most recent health care reform legislation, as we work with the attorney general to reach a final agreement.”

Coakley’s spokesman, Brad Puffer, would not say whether the attorney general’s office would be open to sharing its agreement with Partners with the interfaith group before it is filed with the court.

“We’re happy to sit down with the [interfaith group] to discuss this agreement,” Puffer said.

The Health Policy Commission in February approved a report warning that Partners’ proposed takeover of South Shore Hospital, one of the largest remaining independent hospitals in the state, could drive up costs and hurt competition south of Boston.

It was left up to the attorney general to decide whether to let the deal go through.

Under the tentative pact with Coakley’s office, South Shore Hospital’s prices would be tied to the rate of inflation for 6½ years.

But the agreement exempted Hallmark Health, which operates Wakefield Hospital and Lawrence Memorial in Medford, from a seven-year cap on further hospital expansion.

The Health Policy Commission has yet to complete a cost and market impact review of Partners’ proposed takeover of Hallmark, though the parties have suggested the final agreement between Coakley's office and Partners will contain language allowing modifications of that deal, based on the commission’s findings.

A state analysis last year showed nearly one-third of the money Massachusetts insurers spent on acute hospital care in 2012 went to Partners, which includes Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, eight other hospitals, and 6,000 doctors.

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