‘Grass-roots’ group fighting Beth Israel-Lahey merger has ties to rival hospitals
A self-described grass-roots coalition opposed to the proposed merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Lahey Health is backed by a high-profile Beacon Hill lobbying and consulting firm with ties to a competing hospital system.
Executives of Boston-based Northwind Strategies established the Make Healthcare Affordable Coalition last month, according to public records filed with the secretary of state’s office. The officers of the new nonprofit are Northwind’s founding partner, Doug Rubin, and two other Northwind executives.
Rubin is a Democratic consultant who helped Deval Patrick win the governor’s office and served as Patrick’s chief of staff from 2007 to 2009. His consulting clients include Steward Health Care System, the state’s largest for-profit hospital operator.
Rubin’s firm did public relations work for Steward when the company shuttered Quincy Medical Center in 2014, and he served as a spokesman for Steward during a controversy about nurse staffing at the company’s hospital in Ayer last year.
Boston-based Steward, which was founded seven years ago to take over the Caritas Christi health care network, expanded nationally this year and now includes three dozen hospitals in 10 states. It has nine community hospitals in Massachusetts, including Carney Hospital in Dorchester and St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton. It is a competitor of Beth Israel Deaconess and Lahey, which are seeking to combine, along with several other hospitals, into a large new health system spanning Eastern Massachusetts.
Several hospital leaders not involved in the deal have privately voiced concerns about how their institutions would be affected by perhaps the largest and most complicated hospital merger in state history.
The Make Healthcare Affordable Coalition did not refer to Steward or to Northwind Strategies in its public statements. When asked who was funding the coalition, representatives for the group said it was backed by “concerned parties,” including communities of color and small businesses in cities including Boston, Lawrence, and Lowell.
Rubin, when asked about the coalition’s connection to Steward, said in a statement: “Northwind Strategies works for many other clients, but the Make Healthcare Affordable Coalition is a separate entity with its own mission.”
Rubin said his firm is helping the coalition “raise important issues for consumers about the dangers of the BI-Lahey merger.”
Rubin and the chief strategy officer of Steward, David Morales, both worked for the Patrick administration. Alec Loftus, vice president of Archipelago Strategies Group, who is serving as a spokesman for the new coalition, also formerly worked for Patrick.
Steward did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not unusual for campaigns billed as grass-roots organizations to get support from consultants and well-funded backers.
The coalition is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Such organizations are allowed to engage in political activities. It was announced Friday as an effort representing dozens of “diverse community members” worried about losing access to affordable medical services.
Community hospitals that are not part of the Beth Israel-Lahey combination would find it hard to compete, and they could be forced to cut services or even close, the coalition said in a letter to state health officials reviewing the proposed merger.
The letter said the new merged health system would leave poor and lower-income patients behind because they aren’t profitable.
The transaction would involve the Beth Israel Deaconess network, the Lahey network, New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, and Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. It would include 13 hospitals and about 4,300 physicians.
Nancy J. Sterling, a spokeswoman at ML Strategies who represents the merging hospitals, said the deal has great potential to reduce health care costs. If the new health system attracts 1 percent of patients away from higher-cost providers, costs will go down by $16 million a year, she said in a statement.
“We are confident the new system will benefit patients and families in all of the communities we serve,” she added.
The coalition lists dozens of people as supporters, many of whom are described simply as “community member.”
Visal Chin, a program coordinator for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, a group that serves Cambodians and other ethnic minority groups in the Lowell area, said he joined the coalition because he’s worried the merger would threaten low-income families‘ access to health services.
The Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, a watchdog agency, plans to spend the next several months studying how the merger would affect health care costs, quality, and access.