A dispute between hospitals over cardiac services in Fall River spilled into federal court Monday, adding a new legal twist to a competition for a diminishing supply of heart patients.
At stake is whether Fall River will get a second cardiac catheterization lab, and whether that center's opening will draw away so many patients that a unit in New Bedford will have to close. The effect on patients is unclear, but the continuing litigation shows that two rival hospital groups are girding for an expensive battle over market share.
On Monday, one of those companies, Steward Health Care System, sued the other, Southcoast Health System, accusing it of violating a federal antitrust law, filing a "sham" lawsuit, and defaming Steward in the media. Steward is asking the court to award damages and to order Southcoast to withdraw a state lawsuit it had filed.
Steward wants to open a diagnostic cardiac catheterization laboratory in St. Anne's Hospital in Fall River. Cardiac catheterization is a procedure in which a slender tube is threaded through a major blood vessel into the heart to locate blockages.
The procedure is already performed two miles away at Charlton Memorial Hospital and 15 miles away at St. Luke's Hospital, in New Bedford. Charlton and St. Luke's are owned by Southcoast.
In October, Southcoast sued in Suffolk Superior Court seeking to prevent Steward's unit at St. Anne's from opening. The St. Anne's facility is already built and needs only to pass a final state inspection before opening. On Thursday, a judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the opening of the cardiac catheterization lab. But Southcoast vowed to press forward with the litigation against Steward.
The latest salvo came Monday, with Steward's federal lawsuit.
Asked for comment, Southcoast spokesman Peter Cohenno wrote in an e-mail that "on first review the complaint appears to be nothing more than an effort to divert attention away from the pending state court action."
The defamation accusation from Steward focuses on published commentary by a Southcoast executive alleging improper influence by John Polanowicz, who was a Steward executive before becoming health and human services secretary under former governor Deval Patrick; Polanowicz has since returned to Steward. Under Polanowicz's watch, the state adopted a rules change that allowed the St. Anne's heart facility. But Steward asserts that Polanowicz recused himself from those discussions.
"Southcoast has made false, misleading, and defamatory comments about Steward while trying to protect its monopoly and revenue," Brooke Thurston, Steward spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. Thurston lamented that Steward had to "spend limited resources to defend itself in court."