PORTLAND, Maine — A bid by Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems to add a Portland hospital to its network drew unanimous support Tuesday at a public hearing about the deal.

Announced in late December, the system’s proposed merger with Mercy Health System of Maine would mark Brewer-based EMHS’ first foray outside its traditional footprint of northern, eastern and central Maine. The deal, if approved by regulators, is expected to buoy the financially struggling Mercy while giving EMHS its first foothold in southern Maine.

All 13 people who testified at the public hearing — largely employees, board members and others with professional relationships to the two organizations — urged the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to approve the merger. The department’s certificate of need division is reviewing the deal, which won federal approval in late February.

About 60 people attended the hearing held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. Many of the speakers supported the merger as a way to preserve Mercy as a choice for patients in southern Maine. Portland’s other acute care hospital, Maine Medical Center, is a member of the MaineHealth system.

“Mercy really needs an affiliation or partnership to continue, that’s the truth,” said Dr. William Demicco, president of Mercy’s medical staff. “As a partner, I think Eastern Maine brings the best possible choice.”

Mercy, a member of Pennsylvania-based Catholic Health East, runs the 230-bed Mercy Hospital in Portland as well as a newer health care campus on Portland’s Fore River. Building and operating the new campus while running its existing hospital on State Street has strained Mercy’s finances. The economic recession hit just as the Fore River campus opened in 2008, throwing off Mercy’s projections for patient volumes, said Mercy president and CEO Eileen Skinner.

“Many of our feasibility projections didn’t hold up,” she said.

EMHS plans to invest at least $115 million over the next five years to integrate Mercy into its system. Much of that would be made up of savings expected to result from more efficient operation of Mercy under the partnership, EMHS officials have said.

In supporting the merger, Demicco pointed to EMHS’ strong record on quality care and patient safety and its commitment to health care technology. He also noted, as did several others, the system’s leading role as a Pioneer Accountable Care Organization, a new model under Medicare that’s designed to improve care for seniors while saving taxpayer money.

Mercy and EMHS, an early adopter of the model, see eye to eye on that approach to delivering care, several speakers said. Partnering with EMHS would give Mercy the resources to pursue the model more fully, and link both organizations in their efforts to serve vulnerable populations, officials from both organizations said.

Two members of the business community, Mary Arnold of Yankee Ford Sales in Portland and Jack Quirk of Bangor’s Quirk Auto Park, spoke in favor of the merger.

Kay Hunter, a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, EMHS’ flagship hospital, credited the system for working to identify patients’ needs and get them back on their feet after an illness. After a respiratory infection damaged her heart two years ago, another nurse helped her to return to the work she loves as quickly as possible, Hunter said in supporting the merger.

“I’m also Catholic, so I’m really thrilled about this,” she said.

Mercy would maintain its Catholic identity under the agreement. The Mercy system also operates VNA Home Health Hospice in South Portland, an addiction treatment center in Westbrook and primary and urgent care centers.

EMHS is the parent company of seven hospitals in Maine and operates several nursing homes and hospice organizations.

The health systems signed a non-binding letter of intent on Dec. 7, after Mercy’s planned deal with Steward Health Care System, a for-profit Massachusetts hospital chain, fell through.

The proposed merger has previously raised concerns that EMHS, by competing directly with MaineHealth, could duplicate health services in the Portland area, leading to higher health care costs.

The regulatory approval process is expected to take six to nine months. Department of Health and Human Services will accept public comments about the merger through June 7.

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...