AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Should a publicly-owned hospital's business be secret?

The Georgia Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether it will hear a case about the public's right to get information about Georgia hospitals.

News organizations across the state are concerned about the implications of a case that started when Northside Hospital in Atlanta rejected a records request from an Atlanta attorney made under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Northside has been on the winning side of a court battle so far, which is allowing the non-profit that runs publicly-owned Northside Hospital to keep the records private. The rulings have worried some news media organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that for years have routinely obtained records from non-profit health care systems that operate hospitals owned by the public.

Northside prevailed in Fulton County Superior Court and then again in a split decision in March by the Georgia Court of Appeals.

E. Kendrick Smith, the attorney seeking the records, has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which must decide whether or not to take the case. The records that Smith requested would reveal the details of Northside's acquisition of four physician practices. The AJC in 2013 wrote about patients who faced higher bills after the hospital's acquisition of two of these practices.

Northside has argued that the Supreme Court doesn't need to get involved, saying that the recent decision "has no major implications for Georgia law" and won't affect access to documents in general -- just those at issue in the case.

Northside contends that Smith is working on behalf of a competitor who is trying to use the Open Records Act to obtain confidential documents that contain trade secrets.

The decisions in the case have surprised many in healthcare and the news media. Read more about the history of the case in previous coverage by the AJC and a more recent piece by Georgia Health News.

The AJC's Watchdog blog has followed this case closely because Northside has turned down AJC requests for documents even though other hospitals routinely comply with these requests. Just this summer, Northside turned down a request from the AJC for records related to the compensation of its CEO. Here's a link to the letter: Northside's Letter to AJC

Several media organizations -- and even one hospital authority -- filed briefs this summer asking the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision.  In an amicus brief filed on behalf of the Georgia Press Association, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and the AJC, attorney David Hudson said the decision by the Court of Appeals will allow private entities running public hospitals to "operate in darkness."

"No one can anticipate the full magnitude of misfeasance or malfeasance that might occur in the future," Hudson wrote in the amicus brief. "It is to minimize the possibility of either that the Georgia Sunshine laws have been enacted and broadly construed."

The Savannah Morning News also filed an amicus brief this summer. The newspaper said Memorial Health, which was formed to lease the assets and carry out the responsibilities of the Chatham County Hospital Authority, turned down a records request from that newspaper, using the recent decisions in the Northside case. The Morning News said in the brief that until the recent Court of Appeals decision, "newspaper journalists relied on what they thought was settled law that private nonprofit corporations created by public hospital authorities were subject to the Open Records and Open Meetings Acts."

The Morning News requested documents after Chatham County Hospital Authority members questioned whether Memorial's CEO might benefit financially from a possible partnership deal, according to the brief.

The Chatham County Hospital Authority even weighed in, filing its own amicus brief in the case, also urging the Georgia Supreme Court to consider the matter.

Public health systems must be accountable to make sure they operate for the benefit of the public, the authority argued. The authority said it built and equipped Memorial Medical Center -- now known as Memorial Health University Medical Center. The authority operated the medical center until 1984, when it restructured like many Georgia hospitals and created a nonprofit that leased its assets and took charge of running the health system.

"A Savannah news organization was able to identify a possible conflict of interest at the heart of a potential multi-million dollar transaction involving a medical center both owned and funded by the public -- and of paramount importance to the public's health, given its unparalleled range of safety-net services for the areas," the authority said in the brief.

As a result of the recent decision, the authority said in its brief, the public's ability to hold the local health system accountable appears to be in jeopardy.

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About the Author

Carrie Teegardin is on the investigative team. She is a graduate of Duke University and has won numerous national journalism awards.