° empty

Publicly-owned hospital access bill denied

NATCHEZ — A bill that would have allowed greater access to the meetings of publicly-owned hospitals has died in committee, but Adams County’s supervisors said if a similar bill was introduced in the future they would likely support it.

The bill would have redefined the state’s definition of “public body” to remove an exemption for hospitals in the Open Meetings Act.

“I somewhat understand the need for (some exemption), but I don’t know what goes on in the hospital board meetings, so it is difficult to say if the bill should have passed or not,” Supervisor David Carter said. “It is almost like we are excluded (from the meetings) as supervisors. I think they should follow the same rules that we do as supervisors. Anything financial should be public, as it is with other public facilities, and I think this whole (situation) Natchez Regional Medical Center is in now is a product of that secrecy.”

The situation Carter alluded to is the hospital’s board of trustees recent decision to file for bankruptcy after the hospital found itself with a $3 million deficit in financial liabilities over assets.

“I don’t think we should exclude any (legitimate) exceptions for the hospital board, I just think they should follow the same rules the supervisors have to follow,” Carter said. “I think that is the right way to approach it.”

Supervisor’s President Darryl Grennell said he would also support similar legislation, “as long as it would not jeopardize the hospital.”

NRMC’s attorney, Walter Brown, said similar legislation would probably pass eventually.

“In a multiple hospital situation, if the (private) hospital knows exactly what is the (public) hospital’s situation is with regard to doctors’ salaries and compensation, it puts the public hospital at a disadvantage,” he said. “On the other hand, in a town where there is no other hospital, there probably should be broader access. In Natchez, that would be difficult to work effectively for the taxpayers who own the hospital.”

The supervisors had tried to schedule a meeting with the hospital board for Thursday evening, but the trustees declined on the grounds that too many board members were going to be out of town at the time.

That meeting has since been rescheduled for Wednesday.

“I can’t understand the lack of urgency, but that is when this meeting has been rescheduled for,” Carter said.

“We are just to the point now where we have to get full transparency. We have kind of put a lot of faith in the administration and decision makers of the hospital, and I can’t understand the lack of urgency to get information to us and to the public.”

In particular, Carter said he would push for the supervisors to get more specific information about the hospital’s financial status.

“We requested the financials two weeks ago, and the hospital attorney said we would have them in two weeks, and we don’t,” he said. “You would think that if they are declaring bankruptcy they would have their financials in order to file it. I can’t believe they are that unorganized.”

As the hospital arranges for bankruptcy, it is dealing with its creditors. One of those creditors is the doctor’s group that owns the building rented in part by the Natchez Medical Foundation adjacent to the hospital.

“The medical foundation is a subsidiary of the hospital, a non-profit created to recruit doctors to Natchez to work in a clinic atmosphere and provide services in Natchez-Adams County to anybody at both hospitals, and all of our doctors do work at both hospitals,” Brown said.

“Under our contract, they have certain rights and obligations, and one of which is to notify you when you are deficient in your rental payments. There are some instances in which we — the foundation — are in that situation.”

The hospital’s administration and board met with the owners of the building Monday, Brown said, and rumors that doctors are being evicted are not true.

“We have had some conversations since that time seeking to resolve those issues, and in the context of a pre-bankruptcy circunstance, we think we can resolve this in the short-term, and hopefully in the long-term they can be part of the sale of the hospital.”

Brown said the hospital has a “very good relationship” with the doctors’ group.

Dr. Kenneth Stubbs, one of the doctors who owns the building, said he could not discuss the matter at length without conferring with his partners.

“We are working to find remedies,” he said. “Health care is a vital part of this community, and we will do everything we can to make sure it is provided to our citizens.”