New Lifespan-CNE merger push greeted with cautious optimism

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State leadership and labor unions offered a guarded reaction to the announcement that Rhode Island’s largest hospital groups would take a third crack at merging their two systems.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday called for Lifespan and Care New England, along with Brown University’s medical school, to enter negotiations about joining together to create a Rhode Island-based hospital system.

Raimondo’s announcement put the brakes on a two-year effort by Boston-based Partners HealthCare to take over Care New England and make it a division of Brigham & Women’s Hospital. The giant Bay State hospital group said the decision to step back from the deal made the most sense for the time being.

“We support Governor Raimondo’s commitment to bring Care New England, Brown University and Lifespan together to create a strong and sustainable medical system for Rhode Island,” Partners said in a statement.

The announcement marks a major shift in the potential future of hospitals in Rhode Island. It also represents a win for Lifespan, which had aggressively lobbied for a Rhode Island-based deal.

Still, Partners has left the door open to potentially play a future role in the Ocean State hospital scene. Its interim CEO, Dr. Anne Klibanski, said the nonprofit company “looks forward to reengaging at the appropriate time — especially with a fully integrated local system.”

General Assembly leaders expressed support for the governor’s move.

“I particularly want to thank her for bringing together Lifespan, Care New England and Brown University to continue working towards a unified solution that best serves the health care needs of all Rhode Islanders,” said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, echoed his comments.

“A unified hospital and heath-care delivery system appears to be in the best interest of the needs of Rhode Islanders,” Mattiello said. “I wish them well as they continue to negotiate.”

Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, said local discussions are worth having, but he expressed some concern about whether the state’s current regulatory structure could effectively oversee such a large single health care group.

A merger of Lifespan and Care New England would create a hospital system that controls upward of 80% of the Rhode Island medical sector.

“We might not have as robust and responsive a regulatory structure for hospitals as is necessary if so many hospitals are controlled by one entity,” Miller told WPRI 12. “We’re undermanned and don’t have the ability to respond as quickly as we’d need to.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has spoken out in recent months about the potential perils of an out-of-state hospital takeover, said it was “worth exploring any option that limits Rhode Island’s risk of having health care jobs, procedures, providers and research moved to Massachusetts.”

“There is value in having control of our own health-care destiny,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

Union leaders reacted cautiously, saying they needed more information about how a potential tie-up would affect workers and quality of care.

“Any consolidation of two of the largest private sector employers in Rhode Island into one health system would likely lead to job losses and increase patient cost,” said Patrick Quinn, executive vice president of District 1199 SEIU New England, which represents 2,400 employees working for Care New England.

“As the largest purchaser of health services, it is vital for the state’s policymakers and regulators to safeguard high-quality patient care and good jobs as a new round of health system discussions begin,” he said.

Future talks should take into account the preservation of patient services and jobs in Rhode Island, said Ray Sullivan, a spokesperson for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union, which represents more than 3,000 workers in the two systems.

“It is critically important that the voices of bedside caregivers and health workers are reflected in that process and our union stands ready to offer important prospective and input to the parties as they move forward,” Sullivan said.

Any future deal would need the approval of both the R.I. Department of Health and R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha. In a statement, Neronha said his office is ready to review any future deal.

“We recognize that the delivery of affordable, accessible and quality health care is of paramount importance to all Rhode Islanders,” he said, adding the Partners deal was never fully vetted because his office never deemed the application complete.

Funding for consultants to help steer the Lifespan-CNE-Brown talks with be provided by The Rhode Island Foundation and the Partnership for Rhode Island, a group of powerful local CEOs.

“We’ve supported the concept for some time, in alignment with the foundation’s strategic focus on improving the health of our state’s residents; and we’re glad to provide resources to this effort,” Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg said in a statement.

Tom Giordano, the CEO group’s executive director, added: “We support a new approach to finding a way to bring Brown, Care New England, and Lifespan together that includes fresh leadership and a renewed commitment to world-class health care for all Rhode Islanders.”

In a statement distributed by the governor’s office, former Health Insurance Commissioner Christopher Koller said Rhode Island “has some distinct health care needs on the areas of behavioral health, substance abuse and aging populations.”

“A single, integrated effort to train physicians, conduct health care research and provide complex hospital care could offer real benefits for us,” Koller said. “The leadership of Lifespan, Care New England and Brown University should take on the challenge of seeing if they can organize themselves to meet these needs.”

Former Department of Health Director Dr. Michael Fine agreed, saying, “There is no more important first step for health and health care in Rhode Island than bringing Care New England and Lifespan together.”

CharterCARE, the owner of Roger Williams Medical Center and Fatima Hospital, made an aborted effort at an alternative bid for Care New England a year and a half ago in partnership with Brown, spokesperson Otis Brown noted Tuesday.

Praising the governor’s effort, Brown said, “While it is too early to speculate on the manner and form of a Rhode Island Solution, CharterCARE stands ready to provide input and participation in what should be a defining discussion for the future of Rhode Island health care.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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