Hospital partnership

Kevin Callahan, CEO of Exeter Health Resources, speaks to the audience at a public hearing Sept. 9, 2019, on a proposed partnership between Exeter Health Resources, Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Executives with two Seacoast hospitals seeking an affiliation with Massachusetts General Hospital are taking their campaign to another level with paid media, polling and a public call to action.

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The goal is to leverage enough community concern to convince Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to negotiate an end to his opposition to the deal over antitrust concerns.

MacDonald has said that his office has been willing to talk, but lawyers for the hospitals need to make the next move.

Exeter Health Resources Inc. and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital seek to create a new entity in which Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) would acquire both organizations. Three years ago, the Dover hospital became a subsidiary of the Boston hospital.

The parties would form a New Hampshire-based regional health care network and become part of the MGH system of community hospitals.

In September, the Charitable Trusts Unit at the Attorney General’s office called the proposed affiliation “unlawful” because it would likely decrease competition and increase the cost of health care to patients.

The radio ads and full-page newspaper ads call on Gov. Chris Sununu and other elected officials to get involved.

“The Attorney General has objected to this important affiliation. What do you say? Let your voice be heard. Visit SeacoastHealthcareInitiative.org or text “Seacoast” to 52886,” said one of the radio ads.

“Tell Governor Sununu and elected leaders we want the best health care possible, and we need their help. We just can’t afford to lose this important opportunity.”

Tony James, senior vice president with MGH, said this awareness campaign aims to get MacDonald to jump-start settlement talks.

“It is not at all unusual that you would be in this place, needing some further negotiation to bring about an agreement,” James said.

The concessions the hospital executives could offer could range from offering to sell off physician-owned practices to changing the insurance rates contained in the proposed deal.

In a Nov. 15 letter, MacDonald said his legal team met at length with the proponents on Oct. 2 and laid out why his office concluded the deal violates antitrust and consumer protection laws.

“To date the parties have not provided a substantive response,” MacDonald wrote. “This was plainly communicated to the parties as an available next step in the future.”

In the letter, MacDonald said he objected to media claims of Exeter hospital executives that there had been no talks.

“The parties are free to pursue whatever strategies they choose. However making misleading statements to the public about the parties’ opportunity to dialogue with this office are noted and will not be ignored,” MacDonald said.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll of 504 Seacoast area adults from Nov. 18-25 found nearly four in five (78 percent) wanted the AG to negotiate with the hospitals, while only 6 percent favored turning down the merger without any such talks.

“It’s very easy to say no to things, to say no to a major change like this so it’s significant when you see strong support for this merger,” Smith said during a telephone interview last Friday.

On the deal as it exists, 42 percent said they thought the affiliation should be approved, 7 percent thought it should be rejected and about 50 percent said they did not know enough to have an opinion.

Kevin Callahan, CEO with Exeter Health, said he’s told local stakeholders that as a relatively small health care provider it needs the relationship with MGH to create enough efficiencies to remain competitive.

“By choosing not to pursue an affiliation, we are relegating ourselves to do less for our community in the future,” Callahan said.

Greg Walker, CEO of Wentworth-Douglass, said that hospital’s relationship with MGH produced $5 million in savings and led to more than 300 more jobs in the region, offering patients who used to go to Boston the chance to receive treatments locally.

“There are a lot of advantages to this arrangement that appear to have been ignored,” Walker said.

Walker noted since the state repealed the requirement that hospital executives had to get state approval of construction projects, there have been new health care providers entering the Seacoast offering free-standing urgent care and medical imaging services.

“In our view there’s a lot of competition for health care on the Seacoast, even with this affiliation,” Walker said. “In recent years we have seen more, not fewer, new players in the marketplace.”

In recent weeks, the boards of both New Hampshire hospitals voted to continue pursuing the affiliation despite the AG’s decision.

The ads will run for a few more weeks and at that point the parties will assess whether to continue the media campaign, James said.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020