Lifespan says Partners takeover of Care New England would cost R.I.
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PROVIDENCE — Seeking to block a deal between two of its rivals, Rhode Island’s largest health care provider went on the offensive Wednesday, launching a public relations campaign claiming Partners HealthCare’s proposed acquisition of Care New England Health System would lead to higher costs for local patients and shift jobs to Massachusetts.
Lifespan’s chief executive, Dr. Timothy J. Babineau, said the goal of the campaign — which includes a website, Facebook page, and paid advertising — is to raise awareness about what he sees as the potentially devastating consequences of a Partners takeover of Care New England, the state’s No. 2 hospital group. Its properties include Butler, Kent, and Women & Infants hospitals.
As an alternative to the merger, Babineau wants to revive talks between Lifespan, Care New England, and Brown University to create a “unified” health system for Rhode Island. A separate proposed partnership between the two Rhode Island hospital systems and Partners collapsed in October.
“This is not about Lifespan,” Babineau said in an interview. “This is about the future of health care in Rhode Island.”
He didn’t disclose how much Lifespan is spending to try to defeat the Partners deal.
The proposed acquisition would give Care New England the financial security of being part of a large and deep-pocketed organization, while allowing Partners its most significant expansion outside of Massachusetts.
Boston-based Partners is Massachusetts’ most powerful health care system, with a network that includes Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.
In a joint statement Wednesday, officials at Partners and Care New England defended their deal but did not respond directly to Lifespan’s attack. They said they’re exploring plans to open new outpatient care centers in Rhode Island.
“Together, we’ll deliver affordable and world-class care right here in Rhode Island,” said the Brigham’s chief executive, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, and Care New England’s chief, Dr. James E. Fanale.
“Less than one percent of our patients are transferred to Brigham Health — and those are the sickest patients who require highly specialized care,” they added.
The Federal Trade Commission has signed off on the deal. The Rhode Island Department of Health and the state attorney general’s office are still reviewing it.
Josh Block, a spokesman for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, said the governor “will only support an agreement if it guarantees continued local, low-cost, high-quality health services for all Rhode Islanders.”
Massachusetts’ health care watchdog agency is not conducting a rigorous review of the deal because the greatest effects would be felt in Rhode Island, not Massachusetts.
Lifespan’s Babineau said before Rhode Island regulators launch into their review of “one of the biggest transactions the state has contemplated,” he wants to issue a warning about how the deal could affect the public. Because Partners is a higher-cost provider, the transaction would drive up expenses for residents and businesses, he said.
Babineau said he fears the merger would force more patients to travel to Massachusetts for medical appointments and procedures — particularly for high-end care — which also could stunt Rhode Island’s ability to attract top-tier medical experts.
“We think decisions about Rhode Islanders should be made in Rhode Island,” Babineau said.
Lifespan officials acknowledged they’re concerned about how the deal would affect their own business: Their website opposing the Partners deal said job growth at Lifespan could stall after the merger, and “existing jobs would be in jeopardy.”
Lifespan has nearly 15,000 employees across its network, which includes Rhode Island Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, The Miriam Hospital, Bradley Hospital, and Newport Hospital.
Care New England employs more than 7,000 people in Rhode Island. The system lost more than $70 million in 2016 and 2017 before posting a small profit last year.
Partners and Care New England first announced their merger plans two years ago. Their discussions continued as Care New England sought to shore up its finances — including by closing a struggling hospital, Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. Last May, the nonprofit hospital systems said they had finalized their agreement, and in December they filed their plans with state regulators.
While Partners hospitals are affiliated with Harvard, Care New England plans to keep its ties with Brown University’s medical school.
Lifespan also joined the talks with Partners at one point, but those discussions were later called off.
In the past, Lifespan and Care New England have also discussed merging, but they never reached a deal.
Boston health care consultant David E. Williams said Lifespan officials are right to be worried about competition from Partners.
“Lifespan has correctly identified the threat to themselves — but the idea that that is a threat to the public interest is another matter,” said Williams, president of Health Business Group.
“It’s kind of an obvious move to attack a big company for being from out of state, and [saying] they’re going to hurt our local economy and drive up costs,” Williams said. “Really what’s happening is [Lifespan] would like to dominate Rhode Island and not have to worry about somebody else.”