Under mounting public pressure, the New Hampshire attorney general's office has decided to launch an investigation of whether Optima Healthcare, a three-hospital system based in Manchester, is meeting its duties as a charitable organization.
The investigation comes nearly four years after the same office cleared the creation of Optima, determining it would benefit consumers.
In a stinging petition, 28 of 36 area state legislators have asked the state to reverse the merger and put the system in receivership. The petition asserts that Optima isn't listening to community desires as it consolidates acute-care services in Manchester and, therefore, is violating its charitable trust obligations.
Michael DeLucia, director of the charitable trusts unit in the attorney general's office, said: "We are looking at the legal and factual issues surrounding the merger and expect to issue a report as quickly as possible, possibly within 60 days."
Optima spokeswoman Marie Gross said the system is cooperating with the state. "We are very confident the attorney general's office will conclude the same thing as they have (previously) as relates to the appropiateness of the merger," she said.
Optima controls 243-bed Elliot Hospital and 262-bed Catholic Medical Center, the only two nonfederal acute-care hospitals in Manchester, the largest city in the state.
New Hampshire cleared the merger of Elliot and CMC in 1994, even though a U.S. Justice Department antitrust investigation was continuing. The state said it backed the merger because of expected savings of as much as $200 million over 10 years (Jan. 17, 1994, p. 17). The Justice Department subsequently dropped its investigation.
Optima is consolidating most acute-care services at Elliot, although it will maintain emergency, outpatient, psychiatric and rehabilitation services at the CMC site.
Heated community opposition to the consolidation is drawing serious political interest. A month ago, Manchester voters approved a nonbinding referendum opposing consolidation by a 2-1 margin (Nov. 10, p. 24). In a state that has license plates proclaiming, "Live free or die," politicians take the voice of the people very seriously.
"I'm looking for answers -- clear, unbiased answers," said state Rep. Donald Welch, a Democrat from Manchester who launched the petition. When Optima was formed, the hospitals assured local residents that two acute-care hospitals would continue to operate under the Optima umbrella, Welch said.