Optima Healthcare continues to parlay its antitrust coup over the U.S. Justice Department into an ever-expanding hospital network.
Last week, the boards of Manchester, N.H.-based Optima and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, N.H., approved a letter of intent to bring 113-bed Wentworth-Douglass under the management control of the Optima system, pushing the system's reach east toward New Hampshire's Atlantic seacoast.
Terms of the affiliation may not be completed until mid-July.
Optima controls the only two private acute-care hospitals in Manchester: 277-bed Catholic Medical Center and 238-bed Elliot Hospital. In January, the system added a third hospital, 208-bed St. Joseph Healthcare in Nashua, N.H.
Under the arrangement, Optima Healthcare's operating board would be expanded to include an as-yet-undetermined number of representatives from Wentworth-Douglass, said Marie Gross, Optima vice president of planning and marketing.
While financial operations would be coordinated, Wentworth-Douglass' liabilities and assets would remain its own, Gross said.
Optima's eastward expansion comes as provider competition in the southern and most densely populated swath of the state intensifies.
Last year, Burlington, Mass.-based Lahey Hitchcock Clinic acquired Southern New Hampshire Regional Medical Center, Nashua. Lahey Hitchcock has since joined community groups in vigorously opposing Optima's efforts to shift acute-care services from Catholic Medical Center across the Merrimack river to Elliot Hospital. In the face of community opposition, Optima recently abandoned an effort to issue $35 million in tax-exempt bonds to finance the consolidation and to expand Elliot's acute-care services.
Until the terms of the deal are final, Gross said it would be premature to predict when the affiliation would take effect.
The contemplated link between Wentworth-Douglass and Optima would not raise antitrust issues or require regulatory approval, Gross said.
"Optima Health and Wentworth are not viewed as competitors, and their markets don't overlap," Gross said.
But that's not exactly what the Manchester hospitals said in 1993, when they tried to convince agents from the Justice Department that a merger wouldn't be anti-competitive.
In an antitrust investigation closely watched by hospitals in two-hospital towns, the department conducted an extensive review of the proposed merger in Manchester.
The hospitals argued that the deal wouldn't be anti-competitive because their market extended well beyond Manchester to include a number of hospitals in other cities in southeastern New Hampshire. Wentworth-Douglass is the only hospital in Dover, about 32 miles northeast of Manchester.
Despite a recommendation from the investigating agents that the department challenge the Manchester merger, then-head of the department's antitrust division, Anne Bingaman, blessed the deal in 1994.