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Partners, South Shore merger backed by mayor

WEYMOUTH — Mayor Sue Kay and other local officials are supporting the proposed merger of South Shore Hospital with giant Partners Health Care, urging a state panel to reconsider its initial assessment that the arrangement would raise medical costs and decrease competition without improving quality of care.

“The merger is important to the town, to our economy, and to our health care security,” Kay wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to the chairman of the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission. “I hope you will consider the Town’s perspective as you consider this important matter further.”

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State Representative Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat whose Third Plymouth District abuts Weymouth, also endorsed the plan. “I am supportive of any move that will help my constituents — and those of the wider region — receive greater and more varied access to medical services,” he wrote in a letter to the executive director of the commission.

The Massachusetts Health Policy Commission — created last year to help align increases in health costs with the state’s economic growth — is scheduled to vote Feb. 19 on a final report. The commission does not have the authority to reject the merger, but will refer its report to the state attorney general’s office for further review.

Partners Health Care, the state’s largest hospital and physician network, has filed a rebuttal of the commission’s conclusions, arguing that the proposed merger would save about $27 million a year in health care costs. Partners also denied that the merger would decrease competition and said the state had misinterpreted data.

In her letter, Kay noted that mergers between community hospitals and large networks are “an important trend in the industry, driven by pressures to reduce costs and create administrative efficiencies.”

“South Shore Hospital’s long-term viability cannot possibly be immune from this trend,” Kay wrote. “This merger will provide South Shore Hospital the kind of financial and industrial state of the art support that it will need to maintain its viability. This merger should not be held to a different standard than the many mergers that have already occurred” elsewhere.

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Kay noted that South Shore Hospital, which employs about 3,900 people, was Weymouth’s largest employer and “a means of support for literally thousands of families.” She linked the economic future of the hospital with that of the town.

In a separate letter to the state commission, Town Councilor Michael Smart of Weymouth also made the connection between the hospital’s future and the economic well-being of the town, as did Councilor Edward Harrington, who volunteers at the hospital once a week.

Besides providing local jobs, the hospital “is good for property values because people like to live near a high-quality medical facility,” Harrington said. “And it’s good for the local economy because people [who go there] spend money at restaurants and gas stations. And there’s a spin-off of a whole lot of [hospital-related] medical businesses in the area.”

As for the argument that the merger would increase health costs, Harrington said most individuals would not notice. “Insurance companies will whine, but people will benefit,” he said.

“A merger with Partners Health Care will allow for long-term cost control, enhanced outpatient and preventive medical services in the local area, broader access to specialists, clinical trials, interventions and advanced protocols for emergent care,” Smart wrote. “Additionally, a strengthened primary care network will allow South Shore Hospital to cope with the increased demand for service that the health care reform is expected to generate.”

Bradley said he supported the merger as long as it included a provision to preserve current jobs at the hospital.

“I was pleased to hear that the merger’s objectives include: increasing the availability of preventive, primary and specialty care; improving electronic medical records and health information exchange; and altering how care is provided to patients so that the physician is the leading force in care decisions. All of these initiatives will benefit residents of the South Shore in a positive way,” Bradley wrote.

South Shore Hospital opened in 1922 as 20-bed Weymouth Hospital, in a Civil War-era estate at the corner of Main and Columbian streets, and quickly expanded. Changing its name to South Shore Hospital in 1945 to reflect its regional scope, the nonprofit hospital has 378 beds and a medical staff of more than 900, according to its website.

The hospital provides inpatient, outpatient, home care, and emergency services, and is affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, and-Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Plans to merge with Partners first became public in June 2012, with an “intention agreement” signed that December. Under the agreement, South Shore Hospital would retain its name and not-for-profit status, as well as its own medical staff, board of directors, community connections, and fund-raising activities.

The proposal also calls for Partners to absorb Harbor Medical Associates, an independent practice with 65 doctors in Braintree, Holbrook, Pembroke, Scituate, and Weymouth. Harbor Medical owns and operates an urgent-care center and South Shore Endoscopy Center, which provides colonoscopies and other outpatient procedures.

Partners was founded in 1994 and owns Brigham and Women’s, Mass General, and Faulkner hospitals in Boston; Newton-Wellesley Hospital; North Shore Medical Center; Nantucket Cottage Hospital; Martha’s Vineyard Hospital; Cooley Dickinson Hospital; and the psychiatric McLean Hospital; along with a network of rehabilitation facilities and a home care agency.

In November 2013, Partners announced that it intends to acquire Hallmark Health System, which operates two acute-care hospitals north of Boston: Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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