Taxpayers deserve access to public hospital meetings, records
By LAYNE BRUCE
JACKSON – Let’s get one thing straight. Problems that engulfed Singing River Health System are by no means indigenous to Jackson County.
One might think so, however, after a House committee voted this week to gut a transparency bill and make only Singing River accountable under the state’s Open Meetings and Public Records Acts.
It was a misguided action that, as one sharp editorial writer opined, amounts to putting a Band Aid on a severed artery.
Mississippi’s publicly owned hospitals have for decades enjoyed an exemption from the so-called sunshine laws that require government bodies and public institutions to be more transparent.
And, to be sure, many of these public hospitals operate successfully and beneficially to their patients and employees. Some even welcome the public and the media into their meetings without having to be told by law to do so.
Singing River, though, is the poster child for why all public hospitals should be accountable in this manner. After hiring a new audit firm in 2013, it was promptly determined the hospital’s employee pension fund had been woefully underfunded for years. The snafu left scores of employees fearful over their retirement savings. Lawsuits and recriminations have predictably followed.
But one need only look to Natchez, Batesville or Philadelphia for other recent examples of public hospitals behaving badly. In Natchez, the medical center filed for bankruptcy twice in just five years, leading to millions of dollars in losses while the public had no clue.
Meanwhile, in Ackerman, taxpayers in a county of fewer than 10,000 residents are on the hook for $22 million in loans for a new hospital. While decisions on this facility were made by Choctaw County Supervisors before a hospital board was formed, local taxpayers deserve now to have a front row seat at hospital meetings in the future as a solution is sought for this tremendous debt burden.
Much more is needed to protect what is, by some measurements, the largest public investment in these communities. The anemic version of Senate Bill 2407 the House committee passed out on Tuesday certainly does not go far enough.
But even though there have been instances of terrible decision making at other public hospitals, the House Public Health and Human Services Committee decided only Singing River deserved to be put in the spotlight.
That’s patently absurd and very bad judgment for House members who stand for reelection this year. Their reticence to pass a broad version of this bill stands in sharp contrast to the unanimous vote it received in the Senate last month.
For its part, the Mississippi Hospital Association says public hospitals operate in competitive environments and, thus, deserve the shelter of being exempt from the open meetings law.
Well, public schools compete against private. We wouldn’t think of barring taxpayers or the press from city or county school board meetings.
MHA’s stance also glosses over the fact that openness is by far the default across the country. Mississippi is one of only a handful of states that bar access to public hospital meetings and records. Even states like Arkansas and Tennessee, often ranked no better than Mississippi in terms of transparency, allow access to public hospital meetings.
Taxpayers should be treated as stockholders in these public institutions and are entitled to more information about the decisions that govern them.
The straw man argument that too much sensitive information is discussed in a public hospital board meeting also doesn’t pass muster. Nothing in the bill would make patient records public information. Patients’ rights and confidentiality are thoroughly protected by this bill and by federal law.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander. All public hospitals should be accountable to the public under Mississippi law.
Transparency should apply to all of them, not just the hospitals that have been put in a corner for naughty behavior.
Layne Bruce is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association and a career newspaper professional. His email address is email@example.com.