The wave of hospital consolidation may be hitting the South Shore.
One of Massachusetts’ largest independent community hospitals, South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, is negotiating an agreement to join the parent company of Tufts Medical Center.
The 393-bed South Shore Hospital is part of a system that also includes a physicians group, home health and hospice care, urgent care clinics, and other services. It previously planned to be acquired by Partners HealthCare, but Partners abandoned the deal in 2015 after antitrust concerns and the threat of a legal challenge from Attorney General Maura Healey.
Now officials at South Shore and the Wellforce hospital system are deep into their own discussions about a merger. They have an initial agreement to pursue a partnership and expect to file their plans with regulators if and when they finalize a deal.
Officials at the two health systems announced their negotiations in a brief statement Monday, but declined to be interviewed.
“In the midst of an increasingly complex and competitive health care environment, South Shore Health periodically reviews opportunities in the market so that we can meet the current and future needs of the community we serve,” South Shore Health board chairman Ken Kirkland said.
Kirkland said the discussions with Wellforce are focused on delivering advanced medical services in community settings, increasing patient access to a large network of doctors, and controlling costs.
Wellforce is a group of hospitals founded in 2014 through the union of Tufts Medical Center and Lowell General Hospital. It also includes the MelroseWakefield hospital system, a physician network, and a home health and hospice agency.
The Wellforce system is smaller than two of its major competitors: Partners and Beth Israel Lahey Health. But the deal with South Shore — if it is completed — would be a notable victory for the Wellforce network, and particularly for Tufts, an academic medical system that has struggled to compete with Boston’s other big hospitals, including the Partners-owned Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s.
South Shore Hospital has clinical partnerships with the Brigham,
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Boston Children’s Hospital. It’s unclear how these affiliations would be affected by a South Shore-Wellforce deal.
“We value our relationship with South Shore Hospital and remain committed to continuing to care for the residents of the South Shore, who rely on us to ensure they receive the highest quality, safest possible care close to home,” Brigham spokeswoman Erin McDonough said Monday.
Wellforce board chairman Ellen Zane, meanwhile, said that South Shore shares Wellforce’s values of combining academic and community medicine to improve the quality and lower the costs of health care.
“Our discussions are ongoing,” she said in a statement, “and we are discovering many opportunities to work together to improve health care. We look forward to continuing our discussions.”
Partners previously spent many years trying to acquire South Shore Hospital — internally even referring to it as “the prize.” Partners simultaneously pursued an acquisition of the Hallmark Health system — now called MelroseWakefield.
At the time, Partners’ competitors, including Tufts Medical Center, publicly opposed both deals, warning that they would cement the dominance of the state’s most expensive and powerful health care system.
Former attorney general Martha Coakley reached a deal with Partners in 2014 that allowed the company to complete the takeovers if it also agreed to price caps and other restrictions.
But a judge later rejected that settlement, and Coakley’s successor, Attorney General Maura Healey, threatened to sue if Partners moved forward with the acquisitions. Partners subsequently walked away from the deals.
Last month, Partners also halted discussions with Care New England Health System of Rhode Island after that state’s governor, Gina Raimondo, said she wanted a “local solution” for health care in Rhode Island.
South Shore Hospital has been working to expand its role as a regional health care provider. Last year, South Shore began operating the emergency ambulance service for the town of Weymouth. It also acquired a chain of urgent care centers.
South Shore is also one of the founding members of a group of community hospitals that are working to lower their costs by buying supplies and services together.