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Globe Editorial

A new Steward in hospitals

December 13, 2010

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STEWARD HEALTH Care System’s recent move to purchase two more community hospitals — after having owned the six-hospital Caritas Christi system for only one month — reveals more of the firm’s ultimate intentions. . Led by its ambitious chief executive, Ralph de la Torre, Steward is aiming to create a statewide network that can compete with Partners Healthcare, owner of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, among others. Steward’s new acquisitions, Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill and Nashoba Valley Medical Center in Ayer, will give de la Torre greater leverage over insurers and health care providers outside his network.

In approving the original Caritas takeover, the state put its faith in Steward and de la Torre, who it believes has enough cash — provided by Steward’s parent company, New York-based private equity firm Cerberus — to vastly improve each of their hospitals. If the state is right, the more hospitals Steward buys, the better. Many community hospitals need renovations and new business plans if they hope to survive. Steward may be their last, best hope.

But Attorney General Martha Coakley must keep a sharp eye on the transaction. It’s in Massachusetts’ best interest for Steward to succeed, but not if that means recklessly pushing competitors out of the market or forcing patients to accept a lower quality of care. To its credit, Steward has promised to not engage in predatory practices. But as Steward acquires more facilities and control of the market, the state should ensure the firm sticks to that promise.