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Put sunshine on public hospitals

 

When one chamber of the Legislature passes a bill without a single dissenting vote, that’s a fairly good indication that the proposal has merit.


Such is the case with Senate Bill 2407, which would finally start treating public hospitals like the taxpayer-owned entities they are.


The bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 51-0 more than two weeks ago, had been languishing on the desk of House Speaker Philip Gunn. He has apparently relented, though, and agreed to refer the bill to a House committee in time for action before Tuesday’s deadline.


That’s a hopeful step toward removing the blanket exemption from the state’s Open Meetings Act that publicly owned hospital boards now enjoy. Senate Bill 2407 would require them to operate more like other public bodies, with allowances to go behind closed doors only for a specified — but still plenty generous — set of reasons. The bill would also make more of the financial records of hospitals accessible, while still protecting anything doing with patients’ medical records.


The Mississippi Hospital Association, which has fought off past efforts to make publicly owned hospitals more transparent, is fighting this latest effort as well. It claims that more openness could put publicly owned hospitals at a competitive disadvantage with private hospitals, which don’t have to conduct their business in the open. It’s a poor argument.


Senate Bill 2407 makes plenty of allowances for what public hospitals claim is too sensitive for public release. Trade secrets remain protected from disclosure. So do all the negotiations with prospective physicians or medical practices being considered for acquisition until a contract has been finalized.


Besides, it was a mistake to ever allow public hospitals to operate as if they were private companies. If a private hospital is mismanaged and its finances go sour, its shareholders pay the price. With a public hospital, though, it’s the taxpayers who are ultimately on the hook. That gives them the right to know intimately what’s going on with what is probably their community’s largest asset.


Mississippi got a telling lesson of what can happen when public hospitals are left free to shield their activities behind closed doors and locked file cabinets. Singing River Health System, a Jackson County-owned entity that operates hospitals in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs, is under a joint state and federal investigation as a result of its financial problems. In 2009, its board voted in secret to stop contributing to the hospital’s pension fund. Retirees and employees did not find out about that decision for four years and were misled about the financial health of the pension fund. Severely underfunded, it is likely to be liquidated unless there’s a major infusion of taxpayer money.  Had the hospital board, by law, not been allowed to meet in secret, this mess would have come out long before it did.


Senate Bill 2407 would finally put some long-needed sunshine on publicly owned hos
pitals. The House should pass it.

 

– Greenwood Commonwealth

March 1, 2015

 

 

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