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Steward Health Care strikes deal to sell its nationwide physician network to Optum

BOSTON (AP) — Financially embattled hospital operator Steward Health Care has struck a deal to sell its nationwide physician network to Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, as it works to stabilize its finances.

The move comes as Gov. Maura Healey has said state monitors are keeping eye on the nine health care facilities operated by Steward Health Care in Massachusetts, including hospitals in some of the state’s poorer communities.

The Dallas-based company operates more than 30 hospitals nationwide.

Before the sale can be completed, the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission must review the proposal.

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The commission doesn’t have the authority to block a transaction but can refer findings to the state Attorney General's office, the Department of Public Health, or other Massachusetts agencies for possible further action.

The documents filed with the state did not include a cost for the transaction. Under the deal, Optum would aquire a Steward affiliate that includes the company’s primary care doctors and other clinicians in nine states.

Health Policy Commission Executive Director David Seltz said the panel is committed to a “rigorous, data-driven oversight of health care market changes to bring important information to the public.”

He said details of the proposal will be studied to examine potential effects on health care costs, quality, access and equity. The sale can’t be completed until after the commission’s review and any additional reviews by state or federal antitrust authorities.

“This is a significant proposed change involving two large medical providers, both in Massachusetts and nationally, with important implications for the delivery and cost of health care across Massachusetts,” Seltz said in a statement.

Emails to Steward Health Care and Optum seeking comment were not immediately returned.

The commission's review of the transaction shouldn't delay state and federal antitrust authorities from doing their own review to protect patient access and affordability, Democratic Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano said.

Once all required information has been provided about the sale, the commission will have 30 days to assess any potential impacts of the transaction.

If the sale is anticipated to have a significant impact on health care costs and market functioning, the commission can begin a fuller cost and market impact review.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said for-profit companies that participate in the health care system must understand that their decisions have direct impacts on patients and communities.

“With this announcement, Optum must demonstrate that it can meet the even greater responsibility to preserve and protect health care access,” Markey said at a Wednesday press conference in Boston. “I hope they will live up to that responsibility by controlling costs and putting patients and providers first.”

Markey, chair of the senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security, said he plans to hold a congressional hearing in Boston next week on the impact of for-profit companies on health care access.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, said her top priority is making sure Steward’s hospitals in Massachusetts stay open.

“After years of gross profiteering and mismanagement, Steward’s latest plan raises more serious questions about the future of the Massachusetts health care system," Warren said in a written statement.

“Steward executives have no credibility,” she added. “It would be a terrible mistake for Steward to be allowed to walk away while looting Massachusetts one more time.”