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Secret deal only raises too many questions

If two wrongs don’t make a right, do two secrets do any better?

Last week, Adams County residents learned that a $46 million lawsuit filed on their behalf by Natchez Regional Medical Center had been settled out of court.

The lawsuit was filed approximately three years ago allegedly to right a series of secretive wrongs committed to the owners of the hospital — residents of Adams County.

Hospital officials alleged that the former hospital management company, Quorum Health Resources and a couple of its employees, mismanaged the hospital’s finances and misled both the hospital’s board of trustees as well as the public.

Quorum’s secretive practices — omissions of true financial data and outright fraud — the hospital’s lawsuit alleged, led to the bankruptcy of the hospital in February 2009.

The company’s secretive dealings dealt a nearly fatal blow to the more than 50-year-old hospital. Fortunately, due to much hard work on the part of the hospital’s staff and administrators, the facility seems to be on better financial ground now.

When the lawsuit was filed, many residents and hospital employees felt it was an effort to bring some justice to the situation and dig out the truth about what Quorum actually did to damage the hospital.

But somewhere along the way, somewhere in the incredible pile of documents such a case brings forth, attorneys for the hospital and hospital trustees apparently lost focus and became greedy.

Last week, the public learned that an out-of-court settlement was made in the case, but were told that details of the settlement would not be made public.

Was the settlement for $46 million — the original amount sought in the lawsuit?

Was it for half that?

One quarter?

How big of a cut did the attorneys get paid?

No one outside the privileged members of the board of trustees and their attorneys know the answers.

Ironically, the board of trustees decided months ago that they would not speak publicly to the newspaper — or perhaps anyone else — about hospital matters.

Instead, the board collectively decided only to speak through the board’s attorney Walter Brown.

When they explain their reasoning, it sounds plausible at first, a show of solidarity.

“We speak as a board, not individually,” they say.

But on the other hand, the move is a perfect way to publicly duck responsibility for decisions such as agreeing to a secretive lawsuit settlement.

The next question is: Why would they agree to a secretive deal?

Clearly, Quorum has an interest in keeping any settlement private for fear any other management customers may read about a large monetary settlement and consider suing them to cash in.

But what good does it do to Natchez Regional, its employees and its citizen owners to keep the amount private?

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of not wanting anyone to question how the settlement money is spent?

Clearly, Adams County Supervisors — who said last week they weren’t allowed to know the settlement amount — were onto something when they suggested the hospital should apply all the funds to pay off their debt.

That’s important, as the debt is backed by the county’s commitment to levy taxes if ever necessary.

Adams County residents — as outlined in the hospital’s original lawsuit document — own the hospital. As such, they deserve to know the financial situation of the hospital and exactly how their money is being spent.

 

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.

 

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