By Richard Asinof
PROVIDENCE – A three-hour hearing was held Tuesday evening on legislation filed at the request of Steward Health Care before the R.I. House Corporations Committee. But the import of the legislation was revealed in the Statehouse corridors after the hearing concluded by Steward spokesman Christopher Murphy. Steward’s ability to purchase additional community hospitals in the Rhode Island market in a timely fashion, he told reporters, would be one of several “important factors” in Steward’s final decision to move ahead with Steward’s proposed purchase of Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket.
The proposed bill, 2012-H7283, sponsored by House Majority Leader Nicholas A. Mattiello, seeks to eliminate the current three-year waiting period under the state’s Hospital Conversions Act that limits for-profit hospitals from purchasing additional nonprofit hospitals in Rhode Island after an initial purchase. A hearing on the Senate version of the bill, 2012-S2180, sponsored by Sen. Roger A. Picard, D-Woonsocket, is scheduled for Wednesday.
Steward’s $71.6 million application to purchase Landmark in Woonsocket and the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island in North Smithfield is now being reviewed by state regulators at the R.I. Department of Health and the R.I. Attorney General’s office. A decision is expected within the next 160 days.
Steward, a Boston-based, for-profit hospital system, was created in November 2010 with the purchase of six hospitals in the former Caritas Christi Health Care system by Cerberus Capital Management, a private-equity firm in New York City. Since that time, Steward has pursued a policy of acquisition, purchasing four additional Massachusetts hospitals and bidding for Landmark in Rhode Island. It is also exploring the potential to purchase other community hospitals in Rhode Island.
In the fall of 2011, Steward retained two of Rhode Island’s top lobbyists, Joseph Walsh and Robert D. Goldberg, in part to help orchestrate the push for the legislated change in the three-year waiting period. At the hearing, both Walsh and Goldberg declined to answer specific questions about their lobbying activities, referring all questions to Steward spokesman Murphy. Murphy, in turn, said repeatedly that he was “unaware” of Walsh’s and Goldberg’s activities, and could not comment.