published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Erlanger leadership not privy to Tennessee bill details

Erlanger tile
Erlanger tile

ERLANGER BOARD OF TRUSTEES

City appointees and term ends

• Donnie Hutcherson (chairman) — November 2016

• Ron Loving — November 2014

2 vacancies

Chancellor appointee

• Russell King — November 2016

• Medical society appointee

• Dr. Nita Schumaker — November 2015

County appointees

• Mike Griffin (vice chairman) — December 2015

• Jack Studer (secretary) — December 2015

• Jennifer Stanley — January 2015

• Tom Edd Wilson — November 2017

Hospital Chief of Staff

• Dr. Dan Fisher — December 2014

Legislative delegation

• Dr. Phyllis Miller — November 2015

Source: Erlanger Health System

Days after state lawmakers passed legislation overhauling how trustees are appointed to the Erlanger Health System board, hospital leaders are trying to understand what the changes mean for the organization’s future.

“Erlanger has not been briefed on any details of this bill at this point,” said Steve Johnson, Erlanger’s vice president of government relations, on Friday. “We’ve been waiting on the Legislature to wind down the session to learn more.”

The bill reduces the number of trustees from 12 to 11 and strips the authority to appoint board members from the city, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and the county’s Chancery Court judges. The city had four appointments; the medical society and chancellors had one each.

Hamilton County government adds two of those appointments to its current four, and the county’s seven-member legislative delegation will have four appointments instead of just one. Erlanger’s medical chief of staff will continue as a trustee.

The last-minute timing and the fact that Erlanger was not brought into discussions about the changes raise the question whether the delegation meant to send a political message to city leaders.

But Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Friday the delegation has been weighing restructuring the board for more than a year, and that Chattanooga should not have representation on the board because the city doesn’t provide funding for the hospital.

He said hospital leaders did not need to be brought into discussions because they have no input on who sits on the board of trustees.

“We’re trying to act as independently as possible,” said Gardenhire. “Plus, in those last few days of session, there’s not a lot of time to call back home. We just said if we’re going to do something about this issue, we better do it now.”

The move complicates new efforts by Erlanger to win back city funding. The city had contributed $1.5 million a year to Erlanger until 2011 when the city-county sales tax agreement expired.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said Friday that city budget officials will still consider the hospital’s financial request for $5 million. But Brent Goldberg, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, said last week that “it would be difficult” for the city to fund Erlanger “if our voice is not represented on the board.”

The bill stipulates that current trustees will finish out their current terms, and that full terms will continue to be four years, as they have been since the board was established.

Board Chairman Donnie Hutcherson, who is a city appointee, said he found out about the potential changes to the board the day the bill was introduced. Still, he said board members are focusing on conducting business as usual.

“I told our trustees that our job is to focus on Erlanger while the legislation goes through,” Hutcherson said. “While it affects the trustees, it doesn’t affect the job we’re doing now.”

Assuming Gov. Bill Haslam signs the bill, two-thirds of the Hamilton County Commission must approve the legislation.

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern said he hasn’t yet read the bill, but that he “always thought someone who is elected countywide should have more authority to appoint that representation.”

“From what I know about it now, I will support it,” Skillern said last week.

If the bill is approved, one issue to resolve is what happens to two city-appointed board seats that have been vacant since the occupants’ terms expired in November.

Whether Berke will suspend his search for a replacement, or try to make an appointment before the bill goes to the County Commission, is unclear.

The bill states that the first appointment to fill what used to be a city vacancy will be chosen by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

If that becomes the case, “we would be looking for the people who have a genuine interest in health care and the well-being of the community,” Coppinger said Friday. “It has to be someone who understands that Erlanger is extremely important not only to Hamilton County but to the region.”

A replacement for the other seat will be picked by the Hamilton County legislative delegation, as will the next two seats when those terms expire. Gardenhire said the delegation has not discussed names.

When the medical society’s appointee’s term expires, the replacement will be made by the county mayor. And when the chancellors’ appointee’s term expires, that position “shall cease to exist,” the bill states.

Because trustees’ terms are staggered, the shift in appointments will happen over the next two years.

But by that time, it may not matter as much who fills those empty seats.

Hospital officials say they hope by then they will have moved the hospital’s operating board to a 501(c)3 structure that would have less say over the hospital’s regular affairs.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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