A group of nearly 400 doctors north of Boston has decided to end its longtime ties with Partners HealthCare and join a rival physician network affiliated with Tufts Medical Center.
The decision by the Hallmark Health System physician group follows the announcement last month that Hallmark would pursue a merger with Tufts’s parent company. The move shakes up the competitive market for doctors in Eastern Massachusetts and is a blow to Partners, the state’s largest health system.
Hallmark, based in Medford, said its doctors would join the Tufts network, called New England Quality Care Alliance, or NEQCA, on Jan. 1, pending regulatory approvals.
The Hallmark and Tufts physicians groups “share common values and a commitment to excellence, serving our communities, and keeping care local,” Hallmark spokesman Rob Brogna said in a statement on Thursday. “We look forward to bringing the benefits of this partnership to our patients.”
The Tufts network now has about 1,800 physicians. Spokewoman Alison Nogi said in a statement that the deal with Hallmark is “a natural alignment that will serve to strengthen and expand the excellent work we do in supporting our physicians and serving our communities.”
Doctors tend to refer patients who need specialty care to specialists and hospitals within their own networks, so the deal could result in more referrals to Tufts, and fewer to Partners hospitals such as Massachusetts General. But details of the transaction have yet to be worked out.
“This is a major step forward for Tufts to gain the support of this physician group,” said Ruselle W. Robinson, a health care lawyer at Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP.
Hallmark and Partners have a history. Their doctors have been affiliated for two decades. More recently, Hallmark sought for three years to be acquired by Partners, until calling off that plan in December 2015 amid antitrust concerns.
Hallmark, a nonprofit health system that owns Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Melrose and Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford, later went looking for other merger partners. It settled on Wellforce, a parent company founded by Tufts and Lowell General Hospital in 2014.
Tufts and Lowell General were the only members of Wellforce until Hallmark agreed to join them.
The moves by Hallmark and its doctors to affiliate with Tufts and Wellforce will be monitored by the Health Policy Commission, a state agency that watches health care transactions.
“The physicians of Hallmark have been valued colleagues for two decades,” Partners spokesman Rich Copp said. “While we are disappointed, we certainly understand their decision given the pending merger between Hallmark and Wellforce.”
Partners remains the state’s dominant health care system, with 10 hospitals and more than 6,000 doctors, but it has lost doctors in recent years to other competitors, including Steward Health Care System and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.