Hospital open-meetings bill should be no-brainer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hospital open-meetings bill should be no-brainer

By Will Bardwell
Guest Columnist
JACKSON – In politics, nothing comes easy – especially the stuff that ought to be easy.
Late last year, Singing River Health System in Pascagoula – one of the largest hospital groups in Mississippi and the second-largest employer in Jackson County – abruptly announced plans to kill its employee pension plan. In the days that followed, The Sun Herald newspaper discovered that for more than five years, Singing River had been lying to its pension participants, pretending that the plan was healthy and that their retirements were secure.
In truth, though, Singing River hadn’t contributed a dime toward the plan since 2009. What remained of the plan was little more than painted rust.
Today, about 2,400 enrollees – including more than 600 who are already retired – are caught in the middle of this fiasco. Twenty-four hundred people’s retirements are now up in the air.
Twenty-four hundred. That’s nearly twice the population of Issaquena County.

How did this happen?

Mississippi law is at least partly to blame.

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Although Singing River is a public hospital, it and every other public hospital in Mississippi are allowed to operate largely behind closed doors. Unlike a city council, a public hospital’s board of directors conducts its business in secret. And Mississippi law makes that perfectly legal.

As the Singing River mess proves, that law needs to change.

Senate Bill 2407 would do just that. The bill would amend state law to require public hospital boards to conduct their business publicly and openly, just like other public bodies. It’s a common-sense solution to a sorely obvious problem, and to their credit, both Democrats and Republicans have gotten behind the bill. That bipartisan support helped the bill sail through the state Senate on February 12 without a single opposing vote.

The members of the state House of Representatives should have supported the bill just as strongly. It should have been an easy question.

But in politics, nothing comes easy – especially the stuff that ought to be easy.

On March 3, the bill narrowly survived its trip through the House’s Public Health and Human Services Committee. Even then, the committee only ushered the bill through after gutting it so that it would only apply to Singing River – and not to any other Mississippi public hospital.
In other words, with the exception of Singing River – where the horses are long gone, and closing the barn doors would be an entirely empty gesture –business as usual would continue.
Thankfully, the House of Representatives undid much of the committee’s damage at the bill’s floor vote on March 10. But there is still work to be done: since both the Senate and House must pass identical versions of the bill before it can be signed into law, the two bodies must assemble a Conference Committee to iron out the remaining wrinkles.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it ought to be. But in politics, nothing comes easy – especially the stuff that ought to be easy. And until both chambers pass identical versions and Gov. Phil Bryant signs it into law, you can bet your bottom dollar that hospital lobbyists will keep trying to kill Senate Bill 2407.

Why? According to the lobbyists, opening hospital board meetings to the public would disclose the salary information of public hospital employees. But that’s a disingenuous argument. First of all, in Mississippi, every public employee’s salary – including the salaries of public hospital employees – is already a public record. Second of all, Senate Bill 2407 makes clear that information concerning a public hospital’s recruitment of doctors remains confidential.

In other words, Senate Bill 2407 balances legitimate privacy concerns with the public’s interest in transparency. We don’t have to choose one or the other.

Lobbyists also argue that opening a public hospital’s board meetings would make public hospitals less competitive than their privately owned counterparts. But that’s a red herring, too. First of all, public schools’ boards are required to conduct their meetings in the open, and there’s no evidence suggesting it creates a competitive disadvantage with private schools. Second of all, the lobbyists’ argument ignores the reason we’re having this debate: Singing River. If privacy is good for a hospital’s business, then how do you explain the Singing River debacle?

There’s no good answer to that, of course, because that’s not the real reason behind lobbyists’ opposition to Senate Bill 2407. The truth is that hospital lobbyists simply haven’t learned the lesson of Singing River, which is this: if you want accountability in government, then you have to have openness and transparency. And if public hospitals are allowed to continue operating without that openness and transparency, then it’s just a matter of time before the Singing River episode repeats itself elsewhere.

It might be too late for the 2,400 pension participants at Singing River, but every reasonable person – Democrat, Republican, or otherwise – should want to prevent that disaster from happening again. Passing Senate Bill 2407 would be an awfully good start.

Will Bardwell, an attorney, is the outgoing president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information. His email address is