UC Memorial Hospital board’s plan for closed meeting may skirt law

Brad Hicks • Nov 14, 2012 at 10:05 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control is set today to meet with officials from both Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System in a closed strategic planning session to get more information on their respective acquisition proposals.

However, Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson is of the opinion that members of the board are misinterpreting the intent of the exemption that allows public hospital boards to hold closed strategic planning sessions.

Tennessee Code Annotated 68-11-238 allows hospitals subject to open meetings laws to hold closed sessions for development of marketing strategies and strategic plans. The code states strategies and plans addressed by the board may be treated as “confidential and not public records,” but shall be subject to subpoena.

It further states: “Action by the board of the hospital adopting a strategy or plan shall be subject to the open meetings laws and the adopted strategy or plan, and the studies that were considered in the adoption of the specific strategy or plan, shall then be subject to the public records laws.”

According to a notice of the meeting, the board will immediately enter a strategic planning session after calling the meeting to order at 3 p.m., at which time it will meet with MSHA representatives to discuss and answer the board’s questions regarding the health care system’s revised proposal to acquire UCMH. At 4:30 p.m., the board is set to meet with Wellmont officials for the same purpose, according to the meeting notice.

Gibson said he feels the board’s question-and-answer session with each health care entity does not fall under the strategic planning session exemption created by TCA 68-11-238.

“It’s my opinion that that in no way comes close to the intent of the General Assembly when it approved that strategic planning exemption for public hospitals back in 2008, that they are misinterpreting the law,” Gibson said. “And I think the question they should be asking is whether they are opening themselves up for a legal challenge by doing it this way.”

On Oct. 23, the board approved the official release of the revised acquisition proposals from both Wellmont and MSHA, which were submitted on Oct. 10, for public review. Gibson said he questions the secrecy of the planned question-and-answer sessions given that the proposals have been public.

“The owners of that hospital, which are the taxpayers in Unicoi County, have a right to hear the questions and answers as much as any member of that board has,” Gibson said.

Board of Control Chairman Glenn Tilson said Wednesday evening the board intended to open the meeting, cite TCA 68-11-238 and enter the closed strategic planning session. However, Tilson said he intends to check further today prior to the meeting to see if the board could meet for its intended purpose under the code.

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