- The recent news about the possibility that nonprofit Mercy Hospital will be acquired by a for-profit chain owned by Cerberus Capital should raise red flags all over Maine.

With the possible exception of Eastern Maine Health System’s flirtation over the sale of a few renal dialysis centers to the for-profit Da Vita Dialysis Center chain, Maine has so far escaped the dubious “benefits” of for-profit medicine, and should continue to resist this malignant trend.

If Mercy Hospital goes to for-profit status, its compassionate and healing mission would inevitably be transformed into one with a much different focus — the creation of wealth for its investors. There is already speculation that this acquisition will simply be the first in a chain of such conversions in Maine of nonprofit institutions into for-profit ones.

Medical care, despite its scientific trappings, is still largely an art. As such, the “business” of medicine is vulnerable to changes in its incentive structure.

An intensified focus on the bottom line will lead to a proliferation of “profitable” services, such as imaging, orthopedics and cancer care — regardless of their medical benefits — and a suppression of “unprofitable” services, such as emergency services, maternity services and pediatric and primary care services — regardless of their medical benefits. The recent spate of news about the sociopathic behavior of the for-profit hospital chain HCA is ample proof of that.

I support the Portland Press Herald’s editorial call for finding better ways to provide incentives to doctors and other health care providers to encourage better integration, efficiency and quality control of health care (Our View, “Mercy Hospital sale could be change for the better,” Aug. 22).  

But you don’t have to be for-profit to do that. It can be (and is being) done by many nonprofit entities, where the mission is diagnosing, treating, curing and healing — not profit generation and the creation of wealth.

In medicine, we try to root out and kill cancerous growths early in order to keep them from spreading and becoming life-threatening. We should do the same with for-profit medicine.

Philip Caper, M.D., is a founding board member of Maine AllCare. He lives in Brooklin.