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Bill may make hospital meetings public

A bill authored by Senator Nancy Adams Collins would remove the exemption for publicly owned hospitals from the Mississippi Open Meetings Act.

Senate Bill 2404 would make the records and meetings of publicly owned hospitals open to the public under the rules established in the Mississippi Open Meetings Act.

“In most communities, the hospital is the largest public asset and potentially largest liability to the taxpayers. As long as a hospital is making money, all is fine. But if it starts losing, the taxpayers are on the hook,” said Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association.

Bruce sites problems at Natchez Regional Medical Center and Neshoba General Hospital as examples of why the public should be privy to publicly owned hospital meetings.

He said Natchez Regional Medical Center has filed for bankruptcy twice in five years and Neshoba County Board of Supervisors had to pass an order forcing the Neshoba General Hospital board to turn over an engineering report.

“The public has a right to know how its hospital is operating, including the increasingly common discussions about the potential sale of the hospital,” Bruce said.

Both Senators Angela Burks Hill and Tony Smith of Pearl River County said that all hospitals receive public funds in the form of Medicare and Medicaid payments and that since all hospitals receive public funds, then the law shouldn’t be limited to publicly owned hospitals.

Both Senators also question how the new law would affect patient privacy issues.

“I think that it could present a problem with HIPPA violations in regard to what is normally discussed in hospital meetings because the new proposal is very broad with the term meeting,” Hill said.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, patient information wouldn’t be available to the public.

“Nor would this bill create some sort of disadvantage for public hospitals where they compete with privately owned entities. Minutes from these meetings are already public; a competitor need only wait the required number of days to access the information therein,” Bruce said.

The Open Meetings Act includes a section that allows executive sessions to discuss certain issues. The act states, “the reason for holding such an executive session shall be stated in an open meeting, and the reason so stated shall be recorded in the minutes of the meeting. Nothing in this section shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used to circumvent or to defeat the purposes of this chapter.”

Some of those items that can be discussed in executive session include, personnel matters relating to job performance or character, possible litigation, investigative proceedings regarding allegations of misconduct or violation of law, discussions between a school board and individual students who attend school within the district or their parents or their teachers regarding problems with a student or teacher and the termination of an employee.

Smith questioned what a hospital is doing that makes the press so interested.

“Removing the Open Meetings exemption is not just going to help the media,” Bruce said. “Doctors, nurses and other staff members of a hospital presently have no right to observe the deliberations of the hospital board members. Openness will make the hospital board and the hospital administration more accountable to everyone, taxpayers and employees alike, with a vested interest in the hospital.”

“If it is for financial transparency, I think that information can already be accessed through public records request, and if not we need to clarify just that area,” Hill said.