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    Partners HealthCare adds Lifespan to Rhode Island expansion plans

    Partners HealthCare is in merger talks with two Rhode Island health care networks.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2016
    Partners HealthCare is in merger talks with two Rhode Island health care networks.

    Three might not be a crowd for Partners HealthCare.

    The Boston-based health care giant, which has been in talks to acquire Care New England Health System of Providence, has opened up the discussions to include Lifespan, the operator of Rhode Island Hospital and several other medical facilities in that state.

    It was not immediately clear how Lifespan would fit into the deal. The three organizations jointly released a statement Tuesday containing few details.

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    Partners runs the largest health care provider network in Massachusetts and is the parent of several hospitals, including Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s. It has been looking for opportunities to grow in Massachusetts as well as other states, and earlier this month received state approval to acquire Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a specialty hospital in Boston.

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    “Care New England and Partners HealthCare have approached Lifespan and will begin formal discussions to explore how all three health care providers might work together to strengthen patient care delivery in Rhode Island,” the statement said.

    The organizations said they want to combine their “talent, experience and resources” to create a national model for care coordination. “In doing so, we are better equipped to meet market challenges and mandates to improve outcomes while reducing health care costs,” they said.

    Lifespan’s chief executive, Dr. Timothy J. Babineau, said in a separate statement that he was excited about what the talks would yield “for our patients, our mission, and the Rhode Island and regional health care delivery system.”

    The three organizations declined to answer questions about their discussions.

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    One possible outcome is that Partners acquires Care New England and develops a looser affiliation with Lifespan. Care New England could end up spinning off certain assets or services to Lifespan.

    The three organizations announced their talks about six weeks after another unexpected twist, when Brown University joined a California-based hospital company, Prospect Medical Holdings, in an unusual attempt to acquire Care New England — even though Care New England was already deep into talks with Partners.

    Brown University president Christina Paxson said Tuesday that she remains concerned about the implications of Partners, a Massachusetts-based company, doing business with Rhode Island-based health care providers.

    “Brown is encouraged that Care New England and Lifespan are talking together about the future of health care in Rhode Island, and we hope to be included in these discussions,” Paxson said in a statement. “We have advocated for this kind of within-state dialogue for years.”

    “Previously, we have noted that the acquisition of Care New England by Partners could undermine competition in the health care market and lead to higher health care costs,” she added. “A business relationship between Partners and Lifespan that further consolidates market power could have additional adverse effects on Rhode Islanders.”

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    In April 2017, Partners and Care New England said they signed a letter of intent to exclusively negotiate a transaction. Those talks are continuing.

    Care New England said it had reviewed bids from more than a dozen state, regional, and national organizations before deciding to pursue a deal with Partners.

    The system, which includes Women & Infants Hospital and other facilities, had planned to sell its struggling Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket to a different company. But that plan fell apart, and Care New England moved to close Memorial Hospital instead.

    Partners has indicated that its takeover of Care New England is contingent on the system improving its finances.

    In Rhode Island, Care New England and Lifespan are longtime rivals, but they have discussed merging at least three times. Care New England also discussed a merger with New Bedford-based Southcoast Health System, but those talks also fell apart before a final deal was reached.

    If Partners, Care New England, and Lifespan reach final agreements, they will have to file their plans with regulators in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

    Peter F. Kilmartin, the Rhode Island attorney general, said in a statement Tuesday that his office would continue to monitor the discussions.

    Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe
    .com
    .