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Opinion | Wycliffe Grousbeck

Mass. Eye and Ear can no longer go it alone

The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary hopes to join Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest health care system.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Ten years ago, Boston philanthropist Norman Knight asked, “What would you do if Mass. Eye and Ear weren’t here? Where would you go for the diseases that no one else can handle?”

The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary has treated the toughest cases since its founding as a charitable Boston hospital, in 1824. Today, as the population ages, Massachusetts residents are in more need than ever of specialty services for vision and hearing loss and diseases of the head and neck. These residents expect and deserve access to MEE’s high-quality, affordable care.

Despite growth in need for its expertise and services, critical shifts in the marketplace have called into question whether MEE, as we know it today, can survive far into the future.


Government and private insurers have guided the market toward accountable health care organizations, which hold physician groups responsible for the cost and quality of a patient’s care. This is a reasonable initiative and if executed well, should lead to better patient outcomes with reduced duplication of services. However, it is impossible for an acute-care hospital with only two specialties and no primary care base, to participate in accountable health care, even though MEE runs the state’s only eye trauma service and only 24/7 emergency department dedicated to Eye and ENT care.

MEE has used every financial lever in this new marketplace: licensing intellectual property, selling real estate, and relentlessly pursuing a capital campaign to fund vital research that will lead to new treatments and cures.

But these one-time infusions cannot overcome a negative operating line, nor do they make for a sound strategic plan. The MEE board of directors would be deeply remiss if we did not plan for a future that ensures MEE is here until our clinician-scientists have cured blindness, deafness, and other debilitating conditions of the head and neck.


Working toward those cures is an integral part of the MEE mission. Our visionary scientists have already pioneered research that resulted in sight-saving cures for millions of patients with macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease. Now we are advancing exciting new therapies that may restore vision to young adults with hereditary blindness, hearing to those who are deaf from noise or aging, and many others. Although challenged by inadequate federal funding, MEE is a critical and fast-growing part of the state’s biomedical research future.

Consider this: MEE is the last independent hospital of its kind in the nation. All others have either joined with systems or closed. In today’s environment, our future must be linked to that of an integrated health care system. Given that MEE has deep clinical and research collaboration with Partners HealthCare hospitals (it is physically connected to Mass General and shares Partners’ electronic medical records), Partners is the only logical choice. This is the best plan for Massachusetts to ensure that all patients have access to the highest quality eye and ENT care and benefit from leading-edge research.

As a member of Partners, MEE would remain its own hospital, with its own leadership team and staff (MEE employs more than 2,000 people) and would benefit from sharing infrastructure, resources, and improvements in operating and capital efficiencies.

Concerns have been raised that this merger could increase costs and reduce access for patients. After the transaction, MEE would be just 3 percent of Partners’ overall system revenue. Future Partners commercial rate increases would continue to be limited by established state limits on total medical expenditures and by contract negotiations with payers. In recent years these negotiations have yielded Partners increases equal to the rate of inflation or less. Therefore, MEE would remain competitive on rates and fully accessible to patients. Beyond that, Partners has committed to support the full MEE mission and to allow access for all patients, regardless of their primary care network.


The MEE board did not go lightly into a decision to change nearly 200 years of history. It is time for Massachusetts residents and civic leaders to recognize that this is the best plan to preserve all patients’ access to MEE care and to preserve the MEE mission to cure blindness and deafness for patients around the world. Then no parent or person will ever have to ask, “What would you do if Mass. Eye and Ear weren’t here?”

Wycliffe Grousbeck is chairman of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.