In May, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office signed an antitrust settlement with Partners Healthcare System, the state’s dominant health care network. The deal would allow Partners to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health Systems, but would require AG approval for future expansion. Coakley has tried to cast the settlement as a hard-fought taming of Goliath. Rival hospitals say it only feeds the Partners beast. And Coakley’s gubernatorial rivals, sensing opportunity, have jumped into the fray — turning a complicated policy debate into a sensitive political issue.
1. Coakley’s deal plays it safe
In May, the AG called the deal “a groundbreaking agreement” that would reduce Partners’ negotiating power and help control health costs — in part by capping increases in future contracts with insurers. But critics said Coakley did too little to rein in a growing monopoly. After the settlement was filed in Suffolk Superior Court, Coakley asked the court to delay a scheduled August hearing. Now she says she is open to renegotiating portions of the deal.
2. A judge delays the hearing
Judge Janet L. Sanders did not let a coalition of rival hospitals and physician groups intervene in the case. But after musing, “What’s the big rush?” Sanders opened up a three-week comment period. That public comment time has been extended, since the judge granted Coakley’s wish and delayed the scheduled hearing until Sept. 29. That’s after the state’s Health Policy Commission releases a report on one of Partners’ proposed acquisitions. Even better for Coakley, it’s after the Sept. 9 primary.
3. Health care candidates jump in
Before most other politicians seized the opportunity, Democrat Don Berwick challenged Coakley loudly on the merits of the deal. So did independent Evan Falchuk, who also works in the health care field. Berwick, a former Medicare and Medicaid administrator, ramped up his anti-Coakley rhetoric this month, saying the deal was the product of “secret, closed-door negotiations.” He has launched an online petition calling on Judge Sanders to reverse what he calls a prescription for higher costs.
4. Grossman, Baker reconsider
Steve Grossman, another Democratic rival, first called the deal “a common-sense solution.” But after criticisms started to pile on, Grossman had a change of heart. So did Republican candidate Charlie Baker, the former head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, who once voiced support for a deal he considered a good start toward cost control. Now, he’s calling out the deal as too complicated and hard to monitor. A spokesman says Baker would prefer a deal that keeps Partners’ prices flat, refuses to allow Partners to add additional doctors to its network, and requires Partners to post its prices.