The lengthy and secretive discussions among officials who oversee Jefferson Parish’s public hospitals are a good example of why Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law needs to be stronger.
The law generally requires that members of public bodies conduct business in full public view whenever they meet. But there are a handful of exemptions that allow public bodies to hold discussions behind closed doors, a practice known as executive sessions. One such exemption allows certain discussions among public bodies that oversee public hospitals to be conducted in executive session.
It’s an overly broad exemption that allowed an umbrella board overseeing East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center to meet for nine hours, outside of public view, to discuss important questions about the hospitals’ future.
Officials have been considering proposals from three companies vying to take over the financially troubled hospitals. The board’s recent discussions concerning these proposals were held behind closed doors. Sources said that the proposals have been narrowed to two finalists; Louisiana Children’s Medical Center and HCA, a national company that runs Tulane Medical Center.
Public hospital boards are allowed to meet in executive session on issues that, if aired publicly, could put them at a disadvantage with private competitors. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newel Normand, who serves on the umbrella board overseeing the hospitals, said concerns about the competitiveness of the hospitals, as well as confidentiality agreements with the companies attempting to take over the hospitals, made it necessary for the board to meet in private.
But if the public doesn’t have a seat at the table when management proposals for the hospitals are being discussed, then it has no way to know whether the best deal was reached on the hospitals’ behalf. The stakes here, which involve millions of dollars and the quality of health care — sometimes, a literal life-or-death proposition — make a compelling case for transparency.
We urge officials overseeing the hospital to refrain from invoking exemptions to the Open Meetings Law to keep the public in the dark. In the longer term, though, lawmakers should reconsider the exemptions to the law that seem to protect everyone’s interest but those of the taxpayers.