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    Southcoast Hospitals sues Steward over cardiac service

    Southcoast Hospitals Group sued a rival hospital chain and the state health agency Friday, seeking to stop the competitor from opening a cardiac service and alleging that the move was made possible by the improper influence of a former health official.

    The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges that John W. Polanowicz, while health and human services secretary last year, rewrote rules to benefit Steward Health Care System. Polanowicz had been president of a Steward hospital before taking the state post, and in June returned to Steward as executive vice president.

    The lawsuit includes e-mails documenting that Polanowicz asked that the rules be rewritten and that Steward commented on them.

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    But Steward spokeswoman Brooke Thurston pointed out that Polanowicz left office 10 months ago and questioned whether his alleged involvement is even relevant now.

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    Meanwhile, there were indications Friday that Steward and Southcoast might work out their differences. Last week, Southcoast wrote to Steward proposing to collaborate on the heart service, known as cardiac catheterization. Steward replied Thursday asking for a meeting.

    Given that exchange, Thurston said, the lawsuit took Steward officials by surprise. “We’re a little confused,” she said.

    Linda A. Bodenmann, Southcoast’s chief operating officer, said the suit was filed before she received Steward’s response. Southcoast needed to act quickly because Steward has already begun construction on the new service, she said. “We’ve always wanted to work with them,” she said. “I’m kind of excited that they’ve changed their opinion.”

    Naming Steward and the state Department of Public Health as defendants, the suit asks the court to bar the state from approving Steward’s plan. A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

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    The health department declined comment on the pending litigation.

    At issue is cardiac catheterization, in which a slender tube is threaded through a major blood vessel into the heart to diagnose a blockage. Demand for the procedure has been declining. But state rules require each laboratory perform at least 300 catheterizations a year, in the belief that medical teams make fewer errors when they perform the procedure frequently.

    In 2008, the state stopped accepting applications for new cardiac catheterization services within 30 minutes ambulance drive of a hospital that already provides it.

    But in July 2014, the Department of Public Health adopted an exception to that moratorium. It allowed hospitals that are part of an accountable care organization — a large health system that coordinates patients’ care — to transfer catheterization services from a hospital not performing the minimum number of procedures to a sibling medical center.

    The suit includes a copy of an e-mail from a health department official saying that Polanowicz had suggested the exception without providing a rationale, and asserts that the exception “was developed with the specific intention of benefiting Steward Health Care hospitals, including Steward St. Anne’s.”

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    Steward, which is an accountable care organization, wanted to transfer its cardiac catheterization service from Quincy Hospital to St. Anne’s, in Fall River. Quincy Hospital has since closed, but Steward still proposes to open the service at St. Anne’s.

    Southcoast objects to the transfer because it could draw patients away from two of its hospitals: Charlton Memorial, located 2 miles away from St. Anne’s in Fall River, and St. Luke’s, 15 miles away in New Bedford. The suit says that volume at St. Luke’s could fall below the minimum, leading to the closing of the service.

    After hearing Southcoast’s objections in December, the Public Health Council deferred a decision on whether to allow the Steward proposal.But Southcoast’s suit says the state now is poised to allow Steward to open the service at St. Anne’s, which it says would cause “irreparable harm” to Southcoast hospitals and the public.

    Bodenmann said in a statement that adding the service to St. Anne’s “would provide unnecessary duplication of existing services in our region.”

    Southcoast asserts that the exception violated state law because it was enacted without public input or approval from the Public Health Council, an appointed board of physicians, public health specialists, and consumer advocates. It also contends that Quincy’s former cardiac service has “no legal existence” apart from Quincy’s hospital license, which has been relinquished.

    Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.