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Thomas Farragher

Let’s cage the gorilla known as Partners HealthCare

Wouldn’t this be something?

A major party candidate for governor summons reporters and a phalanx of television cameras to Route 18 in South Weymouth. There, on the sidewalk outside the front door of South Shore Hospital, the candidate raises a fist, shakes it in the crisp morning air, and says this:

“No other state in America pays more for its health care than Massachusetts. And no other company in our Commonwealth charges more for medical treatment than Partners HealthCare. I will do whatever it takes to stop this colossus from gobbling up any more good community hospitals.’’

It would be electrifying. It would be a campaign game-changer.


It’s beyond belief that an exhaustive antitrust inquiry into the Partners market clout has led to this: The state is on the verge of a settlement agreement that will let Partners acquire three more community hospitals.

As Stuart H. Altman, chairman of the state’s Health Policy Commission, put it, Partners is already gigantic. “It will go from an 800- to a 1,200-pound gorilla,’’ Altman said. “Do they need to be that big? The answer is they don’t. They’re already big enough.’’

A little background. Six years ago, my Spotlight Team colleagues and I spent nearly a year examining Partners’ market clout and concluded that its world-class hospitals, Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s, are typically paid 15 percent to 60 percent more for the same work done at community hospitals, though the quality of care Partners provides for routine procedures is no better.

I still have the scars on my backside from verbal lacerations inflicted in a conference room at Partners’ Prudential Center headquarters in 2008. Senior Partners officials pounded the table and told us we were dunderheads.

Except we weren’t. An investigation by Attorney General Martha Coakley a year later ratified the Spotlight Team’s findings, and now even Partners no longer contests the essence of the Globe’s analysis of its market power. The conversation has changed.


So how is it that we are on the verge of Partners adding South Shore Hospital, as well as Hallmark Health System’s hospitals in Melrose and Medford, to its portfolio?

Coakley decided that an antitrust lawsuit was a dicey proposition that the state might lose and opted instead to pound out a settlement deal that she and Partners insist will hold down costs.

“The settlement, from our perspective, is pretty painful,’’ Gary Gottlieb, Partners’ president and chief executive, told me Friday. “It would make us one of the most regulated health care systems in the country.’’ It improves the marketplace and holds the line on prices, he said.

Not everyone agrees. Gregory W. Sullivan, a former state inspector general who is now research director at the Pioneer Institute, has studied the deal and wants it to sink.

“It’s a matter of political will and power,’’ he said. “Nobody wants to engage Partners.’’

This week, Partners’ competitors gave it another shot. The settlement “will result in substantial and continuing increases to the already unsustainable high cost of health care,’’ a coalition of nonprofit hospitals and doctor groups said. They’re right.

That’s why Martha Coakley, a Democrat, and Republican Charlie Baker should head for that sidewalk in Weymouth.

For Baker, assailing Partners would be something that I think his inner self has been dying to do for years.


For Coakley, it would instantly erase a widely held perception that she parses too many issues so finely that they disintegrate into their subatomic particles.

Coakley told me in a phone call this week that her settlement plan is the best way to hold down Partners’ medical prices.

“People want solutions, not fist shaking,’’ she said. “I think we’ve accomplished a whole lot more [with this settlement] than if we had drawn a line in the sand.’’

Actually, what voters want is clear, decisive leadership. The first candidate to deliver it wins.

As for this deal trimming Partners’ sails, I have grave doubt.

As another Thomas, the saintly one, said a couple of thousand years ago: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@ globe.com.