Coast hospital is being ‘helpful’

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Singing River Health System is unwittingly becoming one of the biggest allies of those, including the Mississippi Press Association, who advocate for more transparency in the dealings of Mississippi’s public hospitals.
Calls for removing, or at least reducing, the blanket exemptions that public hospitals and their boards have from the state’s open meetings and public records laws have in the past gotten nowhere in the Legislature, which instead has catered to the heavy lobbying power of the Mississippi Hospital Association.
Singing River, which operates public hospitals in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs, however, flipped the dynamics through a series of bad actions. Under the cloak of secrecy provided by the current exemption in the Open Meetings Act, Singing River hid the fact that for years it had stopped contributing to its employee pension fund, and misled those enrolled into it as to the plan’s financial health.
In the latest thumbing of its nose at openness, Singing River has refused to turn over eight recent years of the retirement-plan’s financial statements. The request for the documents was made by the Sun Herald newspaper, which has been dogged in looking into allegations of financial mismanagement at Singing River. Officials with Singing River claim they don’t have to give the Biloxi newspaper the records because of the exemption for public hospitals in the Public Records Act.
Obviously, there are things in those records that Singing River doesn’t want current and former hospital employees or the taxpayers who own the hospital to know. The one year that the Sun Herald was able to find online, from 2010, suggests why Singing River might rather keep those other annual statements under wraps.
That year, the financial statement showed that 53 percent of the pension fund’s assets had been put into high-risk, high-fee investments. If that was the type of investment strategy the hospital board and its advisers have been following for the past decade — the question that the Biloxi newspapers needs the records to answer — it’s no wonder that its pension fund is nearing insolvency.
It would be easy to push off the problems on the Gulf Coast as an isolated example. A House committee tried to act as if that was the case earlier in this legislative session by amending a Senate bill so that it would require more openness for only Singing River. Thankfully, that effort to minimize the problem was short-lived.
The errors and obfuscations may be to the extreme at Singing River, but they are not isolated. In recent years, public hospitals in several places around the state have gotten into trouble. Batesville’s hospital, for instance, took bankruptcy amid a kickback scandal, and Natchez’s has filed for bankruptcy twice. In all of these cases, state-sanctioned secrecy helped keep the public in the dark as to what was going on until it was too late.
Separate proposals to require more transparency from all of the state’s 46 public hospitals are presently waiting to go to a conference committee, in which members from both the House and the Senate will try to reconcile their bills’ differences.
If there is a compromise, it’s likely to maintain some special exemptions — such as confidentiality of the salaries of hospital employees — that no other publicly owned institution receives. But whatever moves the needle toward greater openness and accountability for all of the state’s public hospitals will be an improvement.
If Singing River can just keep acting like it’s hiding something sinister, even the public hospitals’ high-paid lobbyists may not be able to stifle the call for greater openness statewide.

The Greenwood Commonwealth

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