Business & Tech

Health care costs modest, Partners CEO says

Dr. David Torchiana, CEO of Partners HealthCare, says health care costs in Massachusetts are relatively affordable.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff 2015 files

Dr. David Torchiana, CEO of Partners HealthCare, says health care costs in Massachusetts are relatively affordable.

In the debate over how to tackle rising medical spending in Massachusetts, the head of the state’s largest hospital network has staked out a contentious position: arguing that health care in Massachusetts is relatively affordable.

Dr. David Torchiana, chief executive of Partners HealthCare, acknowledged that his assessment may fall on deaf ears, but he stressed it during a meeting at The Boston Globe on Friday.

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“Although health care costs are a big challenge for everybody, I think that Massachusetts has a pretty good health care system at a relatively affordable cost,” Torchiana said. “We can always improve it. . . . But I think the avenues that we’re chasing right now are maybe not the most constructive avenues.”

Torchiana is making the point with a sense of urgency. The state has assembled a special commission (of which he is a member) to study the variation in health care prices at different hospitals. He is worried the process could lead to “sanctions” against Partners, whose highly rated teaching hospitals, Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s, are also among the priciest in the state.

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Massachusetts is often cited as having among the highest health care costs in the nation — in large part because of the market share enjoyed by expensive hospitals such as those owned by Partners. But Torchiana says it makes more sense to look at medical spending as a percentage of the state’s relatively high family incomes. When adjusted for incomes, health care in Massachusetts is actually cheaper than in most other states, he said, citing data from academic studies and think tanks.

Health care premiums accounted for 18 percent of median household income in Massachusetts in 2015, compared with 22.5 percent of incomes nationally, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a health care research organization.

And although Partners has long been criticized for using its market power to extract high payments from insurers, Torchiana — without mentioning names — said that Partners hospitals are actually paid less than their competitors in other states.

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His remarks are in sharp contrast to those of the state attorney general, the state Health Policy Commission, insurers, and even other hospital executives, who have said price variation and high health care costs require urgent attention.

Speaking about the election, Torchiana also said he expects some “belt tightening” of federal funds for health care when Republicans take the White House in addition to both chambers of Congress.

He also offered support for Boston Children’s Hospital, which has faced strong opposition to its $1 billion plan to expand its campus. Critics include leaders at Partners-owned Mass. General, which competes with Children’s in pediatric care.

“I hope that they don’t gain a huge increment in market share as a result of that. I think that would be a negative for our hospital for children,” Torchiana said. “But I’m not going to get out and publicly stand in the way of Children’s doing something that they need to do to improve their facility.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.
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