PROVIDENCE — If Lifespan Corp. and Care New England merge successfully, the newly formed entity could very well become the state’s biggest employer.
While advocates for the merger note that the latest deal, in which the two health systems would join forces with Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, could increase access to care for consumers and start to reduce care disparities, critics warn that a merger of this size in such a condensed market could lead to mass layoffs.
Together, the two health care systems employ more than 23,600 people across eight hospitals in Rhode Island.
Robert Hackey, professor of health care policy at Providence College, said that while the chief executives at both systems said they are committed to keeping the price of health care controlled, they should be spelling out exactly where and how they propose to save money.
“Where are the cost savings coming from? If they try to squeeze efficiencies out there, that’s going to potentially affect workers. If they don’t, that’s going to put upward pressure on prices,” said Hackey. “So they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place.”
Patrick Quinn is the executive vice president of Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England (SEIU 1199), which represents over 2,300 registered nurses, clerical staff, nurses aides and assistants, service workers, maintenance workers, mental health workers, therapists, therapy assistants, and other professionals within Care New England. He told a Globe reporter Monday that he would be reaching out to the executives at both systems in the next couple of weeks to outline some of the union’s demands.
“We’re not going to accept frontline workers that have been called heroes for the last year get told in 2022 that there’s no room for them,” said Quinn, who said executives at CNE and Lifespan reached out to the union to give them a heads up last week before the definitive agreement was signed. “That will be met with the full force of our members.”
It’s not as though Quinn and other union leaders are opposed to a merger between the two hospital systems, but they are looking for broader community discussions and public hearings. Quinn said in the coming months, he expects representation for all stakeholders in the regulatory process.
“The two CEOs, who are likely well intentioned, think it’s a good idea. But that’s just the starting point. The burden is on them to show the employees and community that this is a good idea for them, too,” said Quinn. “It’s not about just putting the smartest people in the room and letting them figure it out.”
When asked if the newly merged system will have the same number of employees the two individual systems currently have, Dr. Timothy J. Babineau, Lifespan’s chief executive said, “The net result of this merger, we believe, will be job creation and job growth. We’re looking forward to more economic development and more job creation.”
But Hackey pointed out that, in many hospital mergers and acquisitions, job cuts often follow.
Quinn agreed that a merger of this magnitude might displace people, butsaid there should be a commitment to those who are displaced people to help train them for better-paying jobs.
“There needs to be a commitment in the documents,” said Quinn, who also wants to see regulations to hold the new institution accountable post-merger. “Because once this is done, it’s done. There’s no going back. So we need to make sure that we do it right.”
The plan still needs to gain approval from the Federal Trade Commission, the Rhode Island Department of Health, and the state’s attorney general’s office.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey introduced legislation that would revise the Hospital Conversations Act to require the entities to disclose any staffing cuts, change to retirement systems, pension plans, or relocations that will be made as part of the deal.
McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, said he is most concerned about the services and staffing levels at Kent Hospital, which he said has traditionly been a community hospital for residents and is a valued employer in the city.
“This proposed merger impacts every part of our state. We need to ensure we fully understand the impacts on health care, quality of staffing, whether services will be outsourced and impacts on employees at Kent and throughout the hospital network,” said McCaffrey.
The legislation would also prohibit the systems from seeking an expedited review of their application to merge, which a Lifespan spokeswoman said they didn’t intend to do. But both Babineau and Dr. James E. Fanale, Care New England’s chief executive, told the Globe they don’t expect the regulatory process to be very long because they believe they have a strong, compelling case to merge.
At the most, Babineau said he expects the process to take “several months, maybe a year.”
Lynn Blais, president of United Nurses & Allied Professionals, a regional health care union that represents more than 7,200 workers in Rhode Island, Vermont, and Connecticut, including in Rhode Island Hospital and Kent Hospital, came out in support of McCaffrey’s legislation.
“After a year of countless sacrifices and challenges, frontline health workers must have a seat at the table and a commitment that their job will be there for them on the other side of this proposed arrangement,” said Blais. “Patients must know that the services they’ve come to rely on – in their community – will still be there when they need them the most.”