AUGUSTA (AP) – Without calling for hospital mergers or closings, a commission looking for savings in Maine’s health care system is recommending that Maine’s 39 hospitals work closely together to promote efficiencies and reduce costs.

The Commission to Study Maine’s Hospitals also says in a final report released Wednesday that hospitals should continue to meet voluntary profit margin and cost increase targets.

The 13-month study was launched as part of the law creating Dirigo Health, Maine’s program to provide universal health care access. The law calls for steps to hold down the rising costs of health care, including hospital services.

Commission Chairman William Haggett said health care costs in Maine have reached “a point of crisis,” adding that “all of the major players need to play a part in creating a solution.”

Between 1996 and 2002, the cost of a family health insurance policy for Maine businesses and employees increased by 77 percent, while median household incomes increased by only 6 percent, said Haggett, the former chief executive at Bath Iron Works.

Haggett said health costs “have a chilling effect on economic growth.”

In its final report, the study panel called for creation of a voluntary network that would encourage cooperative arrangements among hospitals. Some measures would include standardizing of clinical protocols, administrative streamlining, bulk procurements and sharing of expertise.

The commission, which held three hearings attended by more than 160 people, also calls for congressional action to increase Medicare payments to push Maine hospital payments up to national averages.

Savings could also be realized by keeping electronic medical records in hospitals statewide. Systems could be set up with the help of a bond issue, the report says. Maine hospitals should also have to submit standardized annual reports that help to clarify hospital finances for the public.

Among the other recommendations is one seeking to strengthen state oversight of hospital capital spending, and strategic plans that help hospitals to reverse a growth in costs.

The study commission included representatives from hospitals, physicians, the insurance industry, employers, consumers, an economist and a public health expert.

The final report is supported by seven of the commission’s nine members. The two members representing hospitals submitted their own report, which endorses most of the majority’s recommendations.

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