Hospitals and secrecy make a scary prescription; Erlanager, Hutcheson to dissolve partnership

Hospitals and secrecy make a scary prescription; Erlanager, Hutcheson to dissolve partnership

August 26th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Erlanger at Hutcheson

Erlanger is a public hospital, and Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe has a public hospital authority with trustees appointed by Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties. The counties and the authority together own Hutcheson's buildings and assets, and lease them to a private, nonprofit Hutcheson Medical Center. Meanwhile, Hutcheson, on the verge of insolvency for much of the past decade, now owes Erlanger $21.55 million on a line of credit issued from the Chattanooga hospital.

Confusing as all that may seem, the bottom line is that both entities, no matter how many shell businesses they try to hide behind, are public hospitals that belong to us and spend taxpayer and patient money.

Both Walker and Catoosa counties are in line to have to repay Erlanger if Hutcheson defaults.

So how is it that both hospitals -- most recently Hutcheson -- have closed the door on the public and reporters when it comes to just what their mutual arrangement was? We are left wondering what the $20 million loan and $1.55 million in already-accrued interest has paid for.

On Monday, Hutcheson's board met for about four hours in a closed session before announcing Tuesday afternoon that the two hospital systems were negotiating to end their partnership. Erlanger took over management of Hutcheson in April 2011 shortly after Hutcheson's then-CEO Charles Stewart resigned.

Erlanger -- not itself a picture of public transparency or good fiscal management -- is unlikely to simply forgive that debt.

A little background: Secrecy is nothing new to these two hospitals, which have had far too little scrutiny for far too many years.

In the weeks leading up to Stewart's resignation from the 300-bed Fort Oglethorpe hospital, Hutcheson board members expressed frustration with the administration's secrecy about financial information. Meanwhile, county leaders were angered by reports of a $69,000 CEO bonus during a year when the hospital had lost millions. But with Stewart's resignation, Hutcheson board chairwoman Martha Attaway confirmed that the departing CEO received the severance pay included in his contract, yet she claimed not to know the amount. What's more, Hutcheson officials would not provide Stewart's contract for public inspection after the meeting.

Meanwhile, the board members said they were looking forward to finalizing a deal with Erlanger for management, but they said even members of the board had not seen a draft proposal from Erlanger. Oddly, they had just fired the man who the week before had been reviewing the draft plan.

"That (secrecy) was a point of contention," said Darrell Weldon, chairman of the board of the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties. Two months earlier, the hospital authority board's financial adviser, Ed Wall, filed a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General's office after the hospital administration resisted his efforts to access public financial information through Freedom of Information Act requests. In other words, the hospital hadn't just kept information from the public, but also from Hutcheson's own board-appointed financial adviser.

Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell was critical of Hutcheson: "It's a public hospital, and nobody knows anything that happens there. Maybe if they hadn't been so very private we wouldn't have taken this long" to address the hospital's problems, she said in February 2011.

This week she's frustrated again. But this time she included Erlanger.

They "just went through $11 million of that $20 million in one year without making any changes. ... They were going to come in and manage it, and they didn't do anything," Heiskell said in a telephone interview Wednesday with UCTV-3, a Fort Oglethorpe cable TV station. "One thing they promised us was 15 doctors from Erlanger, and we never got them."

Meanwhile, Hutcheson board members, hospital officials and consultants continue to refuse to answer reporters' questions, referring them instead to Waterhouse Public Relations, hired by Hutcheson for an amount unknown.

The hospitals' breakup after Monday night's closed-door, four-hour meeting had not been on the board agenda, and board chairman Corky Jewell would not release a printed copy that night of the motion to change its relationship with Erlanger -- the same Erlanger that just a few months ago had a 45-minute closed meeting to consider "parliamentary procedure" before hiring its new CEO with no discussion and no mention of any other contenders.

Heiskell, talking to TV show hosts Wednesday, said, "A lot of this stuff has been behind closed doors and is privileged information. I don't remember what is and what isn't, but I probably ought to shut up."

Privileged? Think again. These are two public hospitals and four county governments, counting Hamilton. It's also several hundred thousand taxpayers and patients.

It is unquestionably our business.