BOSTON — Jackeline Peguero's 81-year-old mother is receiving chemotherapy for her stomach cancer and has been on the road to recovery.
But Peguero worries that a proposed merger involving 13 Massachusetts hospitals would drive up her mother's health care costs and reduce her access to treatments.
"We're really afraid about the future," said Peguero, whose mother lives in Salem. "What happens if she can't get access to the medical care she needs?"
On Thursday, opponents of the merger delivered petitions with more than 8,000 signatures to Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, calling on them to reject the plan. In particular, opponents are concerned about the impact of the merger on low-income and minority communities.
"This merger is meant to divide communities of color," Hanoi Reyes, a spokeswoman for the Make Healthcare Affordable Coalition, said at a small gathering of opponents outside the Statehouse on Thursday. "We're demanding that the Department of Health and attorney general's office stop this merger."
Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Burlington-based Lahey Health System proposed the merger earlier this year, which if approved would create a health network to compete with Partners HealthCare, the parent company of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.
The deal includes Lawrence General Hospital, Beverly Hospital, Lahey Medical Center in Peabody, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, and several others. It would be the largest hospital merger in the state in years, officials say.
Opponents say the new hospital chain could cherry-pick patients from affluent suburbs, while diverting MassHealth patients to community hospitals, many of which are already struggling. A coalition of community activists, unions, health care advocates and state and municipal officials are pushing back against the plan.
Lawrence City Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez, who attended the rally, said Lawrence General and other community hospitals won’t have sufficient resources if the merger is allowed.
"We need to protect our most vulnerable residents,” he said.
A spokesman for the proposed merged entity wouldn't respond directly to the coalition's claims but said Beth Israel and Lahey Health are "committed to enhancing our ability to provide high-quality, lower cost health care to all communities, patients and families."
"Throughout each of our long histories, our organizations have been committed to serving all patients in need and delivering great care at a lower-cost," David Passafaro, spokesman for the proposed entity, said in a statement. "Together we will proudly continue these legacies, doing even more for our community than would ever be possible independently."
The proposal has cleared several regulatory hurdles but still has a long way to go before state and federal officials sign off.
In April, the state Public Health Council on endorsed the merger, but it still needs approval from the state Health Policy Commission and Healey's office.
Last month the state commission estimated the merger would increase health care spending up to $190 million a year on inpatient, outpatient and adult primary care services.
It also would increase spending by tens of millions more for specialty physician services, the commission said.
But the health organizations behind the merger say those estimates are flawed and the plan will "deliver improved access, quality, efficiency, and value,” resulting in annual savings of $149 million to $270 million.
The Heath Policy Commission is expected to discuss the merger at its Sept. 27 meeting.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.