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Executives snub hearing on rising health care costs

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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With rising health care costs burdening the country, Governor Deval Patrick’s attempt to find out what can be done about them is being met with resounding silence from many of the state’s health care executives.

Leaders of some of the state’s largest hospitals failed to show up at a public hearing yesterday to answer regulators’ questions about what is driving up costs. A month earlier, officials of the state’s major insurance companies testified at an earlier set of hearings, but refused to answer many key questions.

The hearings on hospital costs, which conclude Tuesday, are part of a three-month probe by the Patrick administration that started as an investigation into the reasons for the disproportionately high health insurance rates paid by small businesses, but has since mushroomed into a larger, systemwide inquiry.

Leaders from just two of the 17 hospitals or hospital networks invited to testify yesterday appeared at the hearing: Cambridge Health Alliance and Emerson Hospital in Concord.

“We are obviously disappointed more providers have not accepted our invitation,’’ said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of consumer affairs and business administration.

“It is certainly in all of our best interest, carriers, insurance companies, providers and all of us, to continue this dialogue and investigate what is driving these unacceptable increases in health costs,’’ Anthony said, “and we expect the providers to be part of this conversation.’’

Anthony said her agency would continue to reach out to hospital executives and encourage them to testify or submit written material. “This will not deter us,’’ she said.

But she acknowledged that her agency does not have regulatory authority over the facilities.

Among yesterday’s no-shows were executives of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Caritas Christi Health Care, and Children’s Hospital Boston.

Ellen Berlin, a Boston Medical spokeswoman, said the hospital’s leaders did not participate because the hospital is in transition with its chief executive stepping down later this month and a new leader not taking over until March. Berlin declined to say whether the organization would submit written testimony later.

Beth Israel Deaconess spokesman Jerry Berger said that a scheduling conflict kept president and chief executive Paul Levy from appearing, but that the hospital is “looking into what other options might be available.’’

Caritas Christi told regulators late Wednesday that its executives would be unable to attend. Spokeswoman Teresa Prego said yesterday that the hospital would prepare written testimony.

Children’s Hospital spokeswoman Elizabeth Andrews was unable to say why executives did not attend or whether they planned to follow up later with written material.

Hospitals were asked to testify in notices sent Dec. 22.

Dozens of executives from the state’s health insurers did testify when called last month by regulators, but several refused to answer some questions, such as why they pay some hospitals and doctors up to three times as much as others for the same services. Some executives said hospital payments are based on fierce competition among hospitals and doctors in certain areas of the state and that confidentiality agreements with hospitals or physician groups prevented them from disclosing payment data.

Yesterday, the insurers’ trade association criticized the hospitals for snubbing the Patrick administration.

“Generally, in this business, when government officials ask you to join them in a meeting, you attend,’’ said Lora Pellegrini, acting president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans. “I find it unacceptable that so many hospitals would ignore or not make the time to sit with state officials and talk to them about what they see as driving up health care costs.’’

Executives of the state’s largest and most influential hospital network, Partners HealthCare, which includes Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals, will testify as scheduled on Monday morning, said spokesman Rich Copp.

The Globe Spotlight Team reported last year that Partners HealthCare hospitals are often paid more for services than competitors, a phenomenon many say has helped drive up medical spending in Massachusetts.

Leaders from more than three dozen other hospitals are scheduled to testify at the hearings today and Monday. It is not clear how many intend to show up.

Catherine Bromberg, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said the trade group has encouraged members to participate in the hearings. She said the association intends to testify on Tuesday.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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