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Judge refuses to block plans to open cardiac unit in Fall River

A state judge is allowing Steward Health Care System to proceed with plans to open a cardiac service in Fall River, siding with the Boston-based hospital group in a dispute with a rival.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Bonnie H. MacLeod issued the four-page ruling Thursday denying a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the opening of a cardiac catheterization laboratory, which has already been built.

But Southcoast Hospitals Group, which was challenging Steward, vowed Friday to press forward with its suit to stop the new unit. "Today's court decision was the first step in what unfortunately could be a lengthy process," said Southcoast spokesman Peter Cohenno.


Steward said the litigation would not stop it from taking the last step before opening, a state inspection.

Steward spokeswoman Brooke Thurston called the service "badly needed," and said, "The judge dismissed every argument put forth by Southcoast and the ruling was conclusive."

The hospitals are competing for a dwindling supply of heart patients.

Southcoast has accused Steward of benefiting from the improper influence of atop state official who had been a Steward executive. That official has since returned to the hospital chain.

Steward asserted that the real issue was Southcoast's determination to protect its market share.

That market share is especially important now that Southcoast is in merger talks with a Rhode Island hospital group, Care New England. The Rhode Island group does not offer heart surgery and is looking to Southcoast to round out its offerings. Cohenno said the litigation would not affect the merger talks.

In refusing to issue a preliminary injunction, MacLeod ruled that Southcoast had failed to show that its suit is likely to succeed or that it would suffer irreparable harm if Steward's catheterization lab opened. She added "the public interest is better served" by allowing progress on Steward's new unit.


The legal dispute centers on cardiac catheterization, a procedure that threads a slender tube through a blood vessel into the heart to diagnose a blockage. Diagnostic cath labs are required to perform at least 300 procedures a year, on the theory that medical teams who perform a service often make fewer errors. But demand for the procedure is declining; thus, a competitor that draws away patients can ultimately cause another hospital's unit to shut down.

Steward, a for-profit group that owns 10 hospitals in Eastern Massachusetts, wanted to transfer a cardiac cath lab from the now-closed Quincy Hospital to St. Anne's Hospital in Fall River. That threatened to draw patients away from two Southcoast cardiac services: Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, which is 2 miles away, and St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, which is 15 miles away.

A 2008 moratorium prohibited new cardiac cath units within a 30-minute ambulance ride of an existing one. But just as Quincy Hospital was heading toward closure, the state Department of Public Health adopted a narrowly written exception to the moratorium that allowed the cardiac lab to be transferred from Quincy to St. Anne's.

Southcoast accused John Polanowicz, then the health and human services secretary, of pushing the exception through for Steward's benefit at a time when he was hoping to be rehired there. Polanowicz has since returned to a job as a Steward executive.

But even under new leadership, the state health department continued with the approval process for the St. Anne's unit.


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