Hamilton County commissioners balk at Erlanger board change

Hamilton County commissioners balk at Erlanger board change

July 13th, 2012 by Mariann Martin and Ansley Haman in News

An aerial image of the Erlanger in Chattanooga/Hamilton County

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Commission's Legal Committee will not support a Tennessee General Assembly amendment that would boost the Erlanger Health System board from 11 to 12 members.

The amendment to the private act would add the hospital's medical chief of staff to the largely politically appointed board.

"I don't have a problem with the chief of staff being a member of the board," committee Chairman Jim Fields said Thursday. "I have a problem with an even-numbered board. We've had firsthand experience with this."

Commissioners deadlocked 4-4 in January 2011 on the appointment of an interim county mayor. Then-Commissioner Jim Coppinger abstained because he was one of the two final candidates.

The Erlanger amendment must be approved by the Hamilton County Commission with a two-thirds vote -- or support of six commissioners. Fields asked County Attorney Rheubin Taylor whether the commission could wait to vote on the amendment.

"I know the mayor's office has been called quite a bit about getting this done," Taylor said.

Staff sought change

Medical staff sought the change to the Erlanger board after a power struggle that resulted in former CEO Jim Brexler's departure at the end of December. Before Brexler's departure, doctors voiced dissatisfaction with his leadership, and the hospital had a decline in surgeries.

Erlanger has lost more than $15 million in the last year.

When local lawmakers voted for the amendment this spring, they said they hoped the temporary change would give physicians more of a voice. The board now has two doctors.

The local delegation plans to look at more permanent changes to the private act next year.

Watson explains process

During Thursday's meeting, Commissioner Chester Bankston called Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, to ask about the change. Watson spoke to the committee via speakerphone.

He explained that Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, presented the bill in the legislature because Watson, an employee of Parkridge Health System, wanted to avoid any potential conflict of interest.

Watson said having an even number can be seen as a safeguard.

"You can also make the argument that, if a measure fails because of a tie, the measure hasn't adequately been presented," he said.

The delegation intends to take up the matter again next year, he said, possibly resulting in an overhaul of the board. Four of the current members are city appointments, even though the city no longer contributes money to cover Erlanger's indigent care costs.

Still, Watson's explanation didn't sway the Legal Committee and it decided not to recommend the amendment to the full commission.

After hearing about the committee's decision, Rae Bond, executive director at the local medical society, said the need to increase physician confidence and reverse financial losses at Erlanger is more important than the number of trustees. The board has an even number of trustees now, with one vacancy, she noted.

"This was never intended to be permanent," she said. "It is to address an immediate crisis of confidence; the more important issue is to increase physicians' confidence.

Bond said the medical society and physicians would be available to explain the importance of the amendment before next Wednesday's commission meeting.