What’s good for one is good for all

Published 7:00 am Thursday, March 5, 2015

The effort to make the public hospitals in Mississippi operate like the taxpayer-owned entities they are is not dead for this legislative session.
That’s the good news.
But the bill that a House panel passed before Tuesday’s deadline is woefully inadequate and needs to be restored to what had earlier passed the Senate by a 51-0 vote.
The House Public Health and Human Services Committee, caving somewhat to the lobbying of the Mississippi Hospital Association, amended Senate Bill 2407 to make its transparency provisions apply to only one public hospital system, Singing River Health Systems on the Gulf Coast. That hospital system has been in the news for the past year because of its financial problems and sneaky decision to stop contributing to its employees’ retirement plan without telling the employees.
The mess at Singing River would have come to light much earlier if it, like all public hospitals, had not been exempt from the state’s Open Meetings Act. Waiting, however, until a public hospital messes up before making its board conduct its business in the open is missing the point. Openness is good public policy because it can deter poor decision-making and shenanigans by hospital board members and executives from occurring in the first place.
Senate Bill 2407 would require hospital boards 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.
Besides raising the red herring that Senate Bill 2407 could compromise patient privacy (a complete fiction since the bill specifically says that patient medical records would remain confidential, as required by federal law), the Hospital Association continues to claim that public hospitals have to be able to operate in secret because of the competitive environment in health care.
So what? Public schools compete for students and employees with private schools. So do public universities compete for students and employees with private universities. They don’t get an exemption because they have competition. Neither should public hospitals.
Mississippi, in fact, is one of few states that allows public hospitals to act like private companies. According to the research done by the Mississippi Press Association, only four other states allow public hospitals to operate in secret, and one of those states, Alabama, is considering lifting the blanket exemption. Public hospitals in the rest of the country have just as fierce a competition as Mississippi, if not fiercer, and they seem to operate just fine letting their owners, the taxpayers, watch what they are doing.
The full House must now consider the watered-down version of Senate Bill 2407. It should strike the amendment and pass the original bill it was sent. What’s a good idea for Singing River is a good idea for every public hospital in Mississippi.

Greenwood Commonwealth
March 4, 2015

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