BOSTON (AP) — A judge has opened a three-week comment period before ruling on a settlement between state Attorney General Martha Coakley and Partners HealthCare System that would allow Partners to acquire three more hospitals.

The Suffolk Superior Court judge on Monday delayed the resolution of a five-year investigation into the market power and contracting practices of the state's largest hospital and doctors' network.

The judge denied without prejudice a motion to intervene in the case by a coalition of hospitals and physicians groups that compete with Partners, which operates Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals. The opponents say the deal is flawed and could drive up costs.

The Boston Globe ( ) reports the judge said members of the public, including representatives of Partners rivals, have until July 21 to submit comments on the settlement to Coakley's office. The judge gave the attorney general's office until Aug. 1 to respond to those comments. A new hearing was set for Aug. 5.

Under the settlement, struck in May after about six months of negotiations between Partners and Coakley's office, the Boston-based health care system will be allowed to acquire at least three more community hospitals but will be subject to price caps at the rate of inflation.

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, an attorney representing Partners' competitors, said the judge should not act "as a rubber stamp."

"The (settlement's) remedies are fundamentally flawed," Murino said. "The priority for us is to allow this court to hear our input, to make sure the court sees all the potential loopholes" in the pact.

At attorney for Partners says the deal imposes significant hurdles.

Coakley has said the settlement would put strong restraints on Partners' ability to raise prices.


Information from: The Boston Globe,