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Steward’s moves unsettle others, but more competition is helpful


Steward’s moves unsettle others, but more competition is helpful

STEWARD HEALTH Care System is moving aggressively to alter the dynamics of health care in Massachusetts — again — and is ruffling its competitors’ feathers as it goes. After gulping up community hospitals around the state this past year, the for-profit Steward has started poaching doctors from its rivals — first from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s physician group last month, and now last week from Partners HealthCare.

The move reflects the increasingly competitive market in the Commonwealth’s quickly evolving health care sector. Steward — the product of a private-equity firm’s purchase of the troubled Caritas Christi hospital network — is betting that a large system of lower-cost hospitals can gain an advantage in a relatively expensive health care market.

Not surprisingly, other hospitals around the state are becoming increasingly worried about the big new kid on the block. But what’s unsettling to existing players isn’t necessarily a violation of the law or the public trust.

Earlier last week, the Massachusetts Council of Community Hospitals urged Attorney General Martha Coakley to launch an investigation into Steward’s new hires, accusing the chain of engaging in “predatory actions’’ that threaten to harm the community hospitals the group represents. If accusations of predatory practices were true, Coakley would have the right to intervene, since that was a condition to her approving the deal that led to Steward’s formation last year.

So far, the community hospital group has failed to make a convincing case for why Steward’s recent actions are, in fact, predatory. Hospitals poach doctors from their rivals frequently, and it usually doesn’t trigger a state review. The practice may be cut-throat, but it’s within the realm of fair play. Massachusetts residents stand to gain from a greater sense of competition between the state’s hospitals.

That doesn’t mean Coakley should take her eye off of the rapidly growing Steward. The attorney general’s upcoming meeting with leaders from the Massachusetts Council of Community Hospitals should be an opportunity for Coakley to explain how she is monitoring Steward’s business practices, and what she has found so far. As competition between hospital chains increases, so too should the level of transparency about the state of the health care industry.