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Judge delays ruling on Partners deal until after election

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders has delayed her decision on a controversial settlement between Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Boston-based Partners HealthCare until after November's election, according to a report from The Boston Globe.

The next hearing on the settlement — which would allow Partners to complete its proposed acquisitions of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Mass., and Hallmark Health System in Melrose, Mass. — is scheduled for Nov. 10, according to the report. On Nov. 4, Massachusetts residents will elect a new attorney general and governor, who will both take office in January. Ms. Coakley is a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Judge Sanders said she has "some very substantial concerns" about the impact the settlement will have on healthcare costs and the delivery of high-quality care in the state, according to the report. Ms. Coakley's political rivals, economistshealth insurers and other healthcare organizations have criticized the settlement, which critics claim will drive up prices. Hundreds of pages of public comments have been submitted to the court concerning the deal, in addition to statements from Ms. Coakely and Partners. Judge Sanders said it was "too much material" to digest this week and she would not rush her decision.

Last week, Ms. Coakley's office amended the agreement with Partners to include more price containment provisions, requiring Partners to cap prices at Hallmark for six-and-a-half years, limiting any increases to either general inflation or medical inflation (whichever is lower). Partners also agreed to maintain psychiatric and behavioral health services at its Hallmark and North Shore facilities at their current levels for five years.

Furthermore, the amended settlement requires the system to develop procedures to address potential out-of-network patient referral issues when implementing its new information technology system. Finally, a compliance monitor selected by the attorney general and paid for by Partners will review and report on Partners' "commercial risk" business, which is subject to a total medical expenses restriction.

The amendments add to the original agreement, which requires Partners to limit future price increases across its network to the rate of general inflation through 2020, in addition to restricting its joint contracting with commercial payers.

Ms. Coakley's office filed the amended agreement after the release of a final report from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission finding that Partners' takeover of Hallmark would be anticompetitive and increase spending on medical care by $15.5 million to $23 million per year, according to the Globe. Partners and Hallmark disputed the findings, saying the merger will actually decrease medical costs by $21 million annually over five years because of more efficient care delivery.


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