PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The on-again off-again merger talks between Rhode Island’s two biggest hospital groups could be on again.
In a statement Tuesday, the CEOs of Lifespan and Care New England announced they “have agreed to enter into an exploration process to understand the pros and cons of what a formal continuation of this collaboration could look like in the future.”
“This process will take months to develop, and for some time it will remain premature to speculate on the outcome of these discussions,” said the two chief executives, Lifespan’s Dr. Timothy Babineau and Care New England’s Dr. James Fanale.
The announcement marks a significant change of heart from last year, when the two organizations had an acrimonious end to merger discussions pushed by Gov. Gina Raimondo. The governor had stepped in as Care New England was trying to consummate a deal to become part of Massachusetts-based Partners HealthCare; Lifespan had previously exited three-way talks that included Partners.
Babineau and Fanale credited the new approach in part to the productive collaboration between the two hospital groups — which are Rhode Island’s largest private employers — during the COVID-19 crisis over recent months. Lifespan owns Rhode Island, Miriam, Newport and Bradley hospitals, while Care New England owns Women & Infants, Kent and Butler.
“Dr. Fanale and I realized how well our organizations were working together,” Babineau told WPRI 12 in a joint follow-up interview.
Fanale said the pandemic forced Lifespan and Care New England to collaborate more than they ever had before, including by sharing vital personal protective equipment that has at times been in short supply during the crisis.
“I think we found out in the last several weeks that together we’re much stronger and together we can do great things,” he said.
The pair acknowledged their announcement was likely to meet with skepticism from many Rhode Islanders, who’ve watched at least three failed merger attempts involving the two organizations since the 1990s.
“There’s a lot of history between the two organizations,” Babineau said.
He went on to say the two CEOs plan to take a different approach to their initial discussions this time, focusing first on agreeing to a vision of what an integrated health system involving the two entities would look like, rather than thorny topics such as board seats and executive jobs.
Neither man was prepared to offer a concrete timeline for when they hoped to have more substance to share, but Babineau said it would be “at least a few months before we’d have anything to report,” and Fanale suggested at least 90 days if not “a little bit longer.”
Linda McDonald, a nurse who is president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union, had a cautious response to the news. “We’ve been down this road before, and as we’ve said each time, the devil is in the details,” she said in a statement.
“Negotiations between these two organizations must be done in the interest of full transparency,” McDonald said. “Additionally, it is not enough to just recognize the life-saving work of caregivers – their input must be solicited and respected as talks resume.” She asked the two organizations to consider including a union representative on a potential unified board of directors.
She added, “If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is to listen to the women and men on the frontlines who are doing the real work of health care.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long advocated the need for Rhode Island to create a unified academic medical center, was among those who greeted the news with optimism.
“Lifespan and Care New England have demonstrated during this pandemic that they can work together when it’s in the best interest of Rhode Islanders,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that their partnership can flourish. The entire state stands to benefit from a truly integrated hospital system led by local leaders who are invested in improving health care in Rhode Island.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook