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At health care forum, Coakley defends Partners deal

Martha Coakley, Democratic candidate for governor.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Martha Coakley, Democratic candidate for governor.

Under attack from gubernatorial rivals at a forum Wednesday night, Attorney General Martha Coakley defended her decision to allow Partners HealthCare to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health System instead of filing a lawsuit to stop the merger.

She said the agreement — which still must be approved by a judge — would help “put a net over the bigness of Partners” and reduce the rise of health care costs.

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“It would immediately level the playing field for competitors, compared to what the situation is now,” she said.

The proposed agreement would impose some price controls and work to limit the huge company’s bargaining power.

Treasurer Steve Grossman, one of Coakley’s two Democratic opponents in the Sept. 9 primary, said the decision would ultimately cost businesses and consumers tens of millions of dollars more, citing the state’s Health Policy Commission.

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“The deal that Martha Coakley has presented to the judge is the wrong deal at the wrong time, which is going to cost too much money,” he said.

Evan Falchuk, a former businessman who is one of the three independent candidates, said the decision would continue the trend toward consolidation of health care providers, which he cited as a major driver of continually increasing health care costs.

“Partners, or the big systems, are too big to fail. They’re too big to fail, so they get to play by different rules,” he said.

Falchuk disputed what he said was the contention by Partners that its acquisition of South Shore Hospital would save a lot of money over the next 10 years. That’s “apparently due to some series of awesomeness they would bring to the table that saves that kind of money,” he said, voice tinged by sarcasm. “It doesn’t stack up.”

The back-and-forth about Coakley’s proposed agreement with Partners, the state’s largest hospital and doctors network, was a rare flashpoint at a staid, wonkish forum at the Dimock Center in Roxbury. There, seven of the eight candidates for governor gathered under a large white tent on a beautiful night to discuss health care.

One of the others was when Scott Lively, an independent candidate and a Christian pastor best known for his antigay activity, panned President Obama’s health care overhaul.

“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” Lively said to boos and heckling from the audience.

The event was moderated by former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who, with avuncular charm, offered questions to the candidates and peppered them with anecdotes about his life.

Republican Charlie Baker, a former health insurance company chief executive, was the sole candidate who did not appear at the forum.

His GOP opponent, businessman Mark R. Fisher, repeatedly criticized Baker for not showing up.

“This is at least the seventh forum where Charlie Baker has been a no-show,” Fisher said. “People have to show up in order to lead.”

Baker’s public schedule had him slated to attend events in Springfield on Wednesday.

“We have five debates with Fisher and have participated in countless forums,” Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement.

Also at the forum were venture capital investor Jeff McCormick, an independent, and Democrat Don Berwick, a former Obama administration health care official.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.
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