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    Partners HealthCare, R.I. system move closer to merger

    Partners HealthCare has its offices in Somerville.
    Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2016
    Partners HealthCare has its offices in Somerville.

    Care New England Health System of Providence and Partners HealthCare of Boston said Thursday that they are moving forward with plans to merge.

    The boards of directors from both health systems have not yet signed a definitive agreement — a formal step that would outline details of the proposed deal — but confirmed they are working toward that goal.

    Partners, the largest health system in Massachusetts, and Care New England, Rhode Island’s second-largest health system, said in a joint statement that the latest progress in their talks “marks an important milestone.’’ Any final agreement would need state and federal regulatory approval.

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    The health systems have been in exclusive talks since April, later agreeing to extend talks an additional month through Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue over the next couple of months until a definitive agreement is in place, a Partners spokesman said.

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    The announcement comes two weeks after Brown University proposed an unsolicited alternative plan along with a California for-profit hospital chain to buy Care New England. Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, warned that a merger would hurt the state by shifting specialty health care to Massachusetts and potentially increase the cost of care in Rhode Island.

    Brown said in a statement Thursday that it is looking forward to “engaging” with both health systems to discuss their plans, but it urged Rhode Island regulators “to analyze the impact on access to health care, the cost of medical care, and jobs and economic development in Rhode Island, and consider whether a local option would better serve the residents of the state.”

    Partners HealthCare president and chief executive Dr. David Torchiana said in a statement that the “lengthy discussions” have “solidified our interest” in Care New England.

    Partners, which owns Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, has been seeking to expand outside the state. It acquired a community hospital in Dover, N.H., at the beginning of 2017. It also is planning an acquisition of Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.

    Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.