Where’s Steward?

De la Torre is sitting out the AG-Partners food fight

One big name is missing from the group of health care competitors that have banded together to fight the consent agreement negotiated by Partners HealthCare and Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Steward Health Care, the upstart hospital chain owned by the New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, met with representatives of the group, which includes Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lahey Health System, Tufts Medical Center, and Atrius Health. But ultimately Steward, which has not been shy about bashing Partners in the past, decided to stay out of the fray.

“We were approached, took part in some of the initial discussions, but did not join the group. We have not taken a public position on the settlement and do not intend to do so,” said Brooke Thurston, the vice president of media relations at Steward, in an email.

Thurston says the fight against the Partners-Coakley deal is not Steward’s fight. “As you know, we are a community-based system that is designed to meet a complete range of health care needs in the communities where our patients live,” she said. “In contrast, academic medical centers with regional networks are focused on pulling volume to their flagship Boston campuses from the suburbs and beyond. This settlement impacts other academic medical centers. It does not impact our system. We have a fundamentally different model of care, which is community-based and community-focused. That is why we have not taken a public position on this matter.”

Steward’s argument suggests the fight over the Partners-Coakley deal is a battle among health care giants who are elbowing each other aside trying to funnel patients to their academic medical centers. But many of those patients are coming from communities where Steward is providing care. And Partners and many of its competitors are moving into those communities; the health care systems say they, too, want to provide care locally and steer only the more serious cases to their teaching hospitals. In other words, Steward would seem to have a major stake in the fight over the Partners-AG agreement.

Partners is seeking approval to acquire South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and two other hospitals in Melrose and Wakefield. The state’s Health Policy Commission opposed the South Shore Hospital acquisition in February, saying it would drive up health care costs. The commission said more recently the addition of the other two hospitals would do the same. The commission referred the South Shore matter to Coakley for action, who decided to negotiate a deal with Partners rather than head to court to block the purchase. Partners’ competitors are now trying to block court approval of the deal.

The agreement between Partners and Coakley would cap at the rate of general inflation (which is usually less than medical inflation) how much Partners could increase charges for its services. The agreement also prohibits further expansion by Partners for most of the next decade and allows insurance plans to negotiate rates with Partners as a whole or with individual hospitals within the Partners system. Coakley says the deal does more to change the dynamic of the health care market than a lawsuit would; critics say the agreement locks in Partners’ dominance and will cement the system’s control of the regional health care market.

It’s a pivotal debate, and Steward is sitting on the sidelines.

Some think the company decided to sit this one out because of its close ties to Coakley. The attorney general in 2010 approved the acquisition by Cerberus/Steward of six Caritas Christi hospitals owned by the Boston archdiocese. Coakley also retains some regulatory oversight over Steward, including a say in whether the health care system can shut down any of its hospitals.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Steward executives, led by CEO Ralph de la Torre, gave big to Coakley when she ran for the US Senate in 2010 and ponied up again earlier this year as she mounted her run for governor. Campaign finance records indicate de la Torre and his wife Wing led a group of Steward executives and spouses who made $500 donations to Coakley on February 26. More Steward officials contributed to Coakley in late March.

In all, Steward executives have contributed more than $18,000 to Coakley since late last year. No other health care system has taken such an interest in the gubernatorial campaign, which may help explain why Steward is less interested in the legal fight over the Partners expansion plans.