Doctors guaranteed Erlanger board seat, but not vote

Doctors guaranteed Erlanger board seat, but not vote

January 26th, 2013 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Chattanooga's Erlanger Hospital is seen in this aerial file photo.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S NEXT

The bill to revamp Erlanger Health System's governance is expected to be filed Monday, according to House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

The group representing more than 1,000 Hamilton County physicians is dismayed that a bill proposed by state lawmakers to restructure Erlanger's board of trustees won't promise a doctor will serve as a voting member.

"We think it's important to guarantee there will always be at least one voting position for a physician," Rae Young Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, said Friday.

But her argument met with little sympathy from Rep. Gerald McCormick, House majority leader, head of the delegation and the man who's writing the bill to restructure the public hospital's board.

"I think we want to be very careful," the Chattanooga Republican said Friday. "We need physicians to have a voice but also have to be careful and remember that Erlanger hospital was fined a lot of money because of some dealings with some physicians a few years ago."

He was referring to a $40 million fine Erlanger agreed to pay in 2005 to settle state and federal investigations into improper payments related to physician contracts.

McCormick and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, announced Thursday they expect to file a bill next week that would reshape the board of Erlanger Health System.

In a news release Friday, Bond said the medical society had encouraged changes in the hospital's governance but said taking away two voting positions for physicians was a step in the wrong direction.

"For an institution that has clearly suffered from alienation of community physicians, it seems a step backwards to remove physicians as voting members of the board of trustees," Bond said.

The proposed restructuring -- final language is still being worked out -- would shrink the board from 12 members to nine, including nonvoting seats for a physician and an educator. The bill takes appointment power away from community institutions -- mayors' offices, the medical society, chancellors and others -- and allows board members to select their own replacements. The delegation will appoint the initial seven board members in consultation with County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Nothing says one of the seven members cannot be a physician.

In a telephone interview, Bond said the society had written to the delegation in January 2012 and again last week suggesting an independent study to make recommendations for the hospital's governance and stating the need to keep doctors as voting members.

That didn't happen, though McCormick said the delegation has looked to knowledgeable people for guidance on crafting the legislation.

"We're not in charge of studies," he said. "We're in charge of the private act and how the board is formed. We're trying to revamp the board and make it functional rather than dysfunctional like it is now."

Trustees fired former CEO Jim Brexler in December 2011 -- the third consecutive CEO they had fired and paid severance to -- and began searching for a replacement in April.

Around the same time, the lawmakers began looking at the hospital's governance. When the hospital CEO search narrowed to three candidates, the lawmakers wrote the board in December asking members to slow the process.

Instead, some board members wanted to speed the process up -- lawmakers said they'd heard a CEO vote might be held Thursday.

Thus Thursday's late afternoon news release -- just two hours before the board met.

McCormick said the bill could pass through the Legislature by Feb. 11, and the appointment process could be under way by mid-March.

At Thursday's board meeting, Dr. Phyllis Miller, a trustee and head of the CEO search committee, said the group has "kind of been kept in the dark about what they [lawmakers] are working on."

She added, "We've worked hard to come up with a good crop of [CEO] candidates. It distresses me to see that derailed at the last minute."

Bond said the medical society always has had a "productive relationship" with the delegation. She spoke on the phone Friday with some lawmakers.

"We've had several conversations today to indicate we're concerned by reports there are no specific voting positions for physicians on the board," she said. "We will be reviewing the legislation when it's introduced and providing feedback to the delegation on any specific other issues that we see."