April 7, 2015

Mass. health care commission could gain more power

A two-year-old state commission that played a key role in the recent flare-up over Partners HealthCare's expansion plans could soon gain even more power as the market increasingly trends towards mergers and acquisitions.

A top House leader and the attorney general plan to file legislation this week handing more power to the Health Policy Commission, an independent commission overseeing the Massachusetts health care market, according to a source familiar with the proposal.

Pushed by Attorney General Maura Healey and House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, the bill would make the referral of a commission report evidence of a violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, which the attorney general's office has the power to enforce.

The legislation would designate the commission's cost and market impact review as "prima facie" evidence, or sufficient evidence unless proven otherwise, that a proposed merger or acquisition is in violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

The attorney general's office would retain full discretion on whether or not to litigate.

The proposal would also allow a commission report to be used by the attorney general to temporarily block a health care organization's proposed transaction.

The commission was created under 2012 health cost containment legislation.

In late January, the commission adopted recommendations that contemplated additional legislative authority for the panel to determine whether planned health care transactions are meeting efficiency, quality and access commitments.

The commission is overseen by an 11-member board, which is chaired by Dr. Stuart Altman and includes consumer and patient advocates as well as business and labor officials. The commission is staffed by officials with ties to the Legislature, such as David Seltz, its executive director, who previously worked as health care adviser for former Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick.

The commission's analyses were a factor in a Superior Court judge's decision to reject an anti-trust settlement negotiated by Healey's predecessor, Martha Coakley.

The settlement would have allowed Partners HealthCare to acquire -- with a number of restrictions covering its expansion -- South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and Hallmark Health System in northeastern Massachusetts.

Judge Janet Sanders, who wrote that she was concerned about the enforceability and market impact of the deal, singled out the commission and its concerns that the Partners acquisitions would lead to higher health care prices. "Of all the public comments that this Court received, the most important are those from the HPC," she wrote in her January 29 decision.


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