Honesty should be policy for hospital board


For some reason, The Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees doesn't seem to trust the people whose interests it's supposed to be watching out for.
How else to explain its history of secrecy when making decisions that affect the community's health-care needs?
The board should have learned by now that honesty is the best policy when it comes to decisions about taxpayer-funded services.
The board already has gotten in hot water for buying up property bordering the hospital so it could build a new facility. Officials are dealing with the fallout of that decision, which has resulted in construction delays and possibly jeopardized the entire project altogether.
Now the board and TMH Administrator Randy Phelps are trying to sell the public on the positive aspects of acquiring Northwest Health Specialists and its MRI machine -- but only after the deal was leaked to the public.
Hospital officials make a compelling argument for why it thinks the acquisition would improve its financial position and corner the market on MRI services in the community. But the argument is lost on those who feel the board is being deceitful by debating the issue behind closed doors.
It comes at a time when the board is trying to regain the public's confidence in its ability to perform due diligence on a construction plan for a new hospital. The board is trying to get a tax question on the November ballot because it says it can't afford to build a new hospital anywhere other than Russell Street without additional resources.
And yet, they're ready to pony up several hundred thousand dollars a year to acquire an MRI machine that was the cornerstone of a failing business. Hospital officals say its "critical access" designation gives it a profitability edge that no private clinic could enjoy.
Phelps said one primary reason the board considered the deal is to ensure that a private business did not purchase the building and equipment and compete with the hospital.
But that's exactly the situation now and Northwest Health Specialists is trying to unload the unprofitable MRI machine.
To be fair, the board probably would have been raked over the coals even it had announced from the get-go that it was negotiating to lease the clinic.
Questions would have surfaced and cynics would have asked whether it was some kind of ploy to stay put and build on the hospital campus. Critics would have lashed out that it makes no financial sense to be discussing a multi-million-dollar acquisition when the board is pleading poverty to build a new hospital.
But nobody could have accused the hospital of trying to slip one past the public. They could have taken their lumps while vigorously defending their position. Instead, they've got a credibility problem on their hands.
The decision raises all kinds of questions. Who's leading the charge here?
Is Quorum, the hospital's management company, providing any kind of expertise on these matters? Are they the ones advising the board to shoot first and ask questions later?
And if they're not involved in the decision-making process, then what exactly is Quorum's role in managing the hospital?
Are they simple lackeys with purchasing power for the hospital; pandering to the wishes of the board to maintain a lucrative contract?
We've tried to give the all-volunteer board the benefit of the doubt; operating under the assumption that they have the best interests of the community in mind. That's how it's supposed to work. We're supposed to put our faith in them to make good decisions. But they don't seem to have enough faith in us to explain why they do the things they do until after the fact.
"If we had public comment on any purchase, nothing would ever get done," board member Gene Bryant said. "There has to be some trust (in appointed officials) to do due diligence. If that's not the case, then other people should be doing it."
We remind the hospital board that trust is a two-way street.
You have to earn it before you can expect it to work for you.

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