Attorney General Maura Healey is warning that Mass General Brigham’s proposal to build three new surgery centers is likely to increase health care costs across Massachusetts, turning up the pressure on the state’s largest health care provider as it pursues a long-planned and significant expansion.
Healey, after reviewing documents from MGB, released a report Wednesday that said the project would have broad implications for the health care market. It would allow Mass General Brigham to draw new patients not just to its outpatient clinics, but to its hospitals as well, through referrals from doctors.
MGB is the most expensive health care system in the state, so health care costs would rise if it draws patients away from lower-priced providers, the attorney general said. Such a shift could also destabilize community hospitals that depend on patients with private insurance, she said.
The attorney general has authority to review the health care market and share comments with public health officials, but she doesn’t have power to block MGB’s plan.
Her findings were released as House lawmakers this week approved legislation that takes aim at MGB by creating a stricter state review process for large hospital systems that want to expand.
“High-priced hospital systems are proposing major expansion projects that will likely increase their commercial market share at the expense of lower-priced providers,” Healey told the Health Policy Commission Wednesday.
“We need to think differently about government tools for cost containment and redistribution of health care dollars,” she said. “These changes will be hard for some, but we can’t afford to continue the way our health care spending has been going.”
MGB in January filed plans with the Department of Public Health to build new surgery centers in far-flung suburbs — Westborough, Woburn, and Westwood — which would include operating rooms, imaging services, primary care, specialists, and mental health care. The plan faces fierce opposition from competitors, including UMass Memorial Health, Shields Health Care Group, and Wellforce, that argue their biggest rival is targeting affluent communities to steal their wealthy patients.
MGB executives argue the new centers would make high-quality care more accessible for 227,000 of their existing patients who live in and around those communities.
But Healey’s report sheds light on the business that MGB hopes to gain through its expansion. The report revealed details from an internal analysis that Mass General Brigham — then called Partners HealthCare —conducted in 2018 as it was planning the new surgery centers.
MGB projected its outpatient growth plan would bring in $385 million annually and increase market share by attracting an additional 1 percent to 2 percent of people in Eastern Massachusetts, Healey’s report said.
MGB expected to recruit 22 primary care physicians to work at its new centers, the report noted, potentially gaining thousands of new patients because primary care doctors often bring their patients with them if they move to a new system.
Amy Rosenthal, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Health Care For All, said Healey’s report clearly shows the project would draw patients into the more expensive MGB system.
“Individuals and families are really struggling to pay for their health insurance,” Rosenthal said. “Anything that adds further cost to the system right now is not something that is going to help everyday people.”
MGB officials, in a statement, said Healey’s report ignores the needs of their patients “who are looking for lower-cost health care options close to where they live from their chosen provider.”
“At a time when more health care is needed, we should focus on providing the care, services, and capacity Massachusetts sorely needs. It is what our patients and the public want and deserve,” they said.
MGB leaders have said they expect prices at their surgery centers to be 25 percent less than at MGB hospitals.
State health officials are reviewing MGB’s plan to build outpatient clinics — as well as a massive expansion at Massachusetts General Hospital and an addition at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital. They are requiring MGB to hire an expert to analyze the cost implications of all three projects.
The Health Policy Commission, a watchdog state agency, is also reviewing MGB’s plans.
Dan Cence, spokesman for a coalition opposed to MGB’s expansion in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn, said the action by House lawmakers and the attorney general’s report show the serious implications of the project.
“Not only are they taking patients away who are served by community hospitals,” Cence said, “but they’re taking them away to hospitals that are inevitably going to charge more, so costs are going to go up for all of Massachusetts.”
Healey has been tough on the state’s largest health care provider in the past. When she took office in 2015, she immediately threatened to sue to block the organization from acquiring additional community hospitals north and south of Boston. Mass General Brigham later scrapped that acquisition plan.