The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that documents relating to the sale of a public hospital are subject to the state’s Open Records Act.
The decision in Tennessee Valley Printing Company, Inc. vs. Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County, which reversed a lower court’s ruling, made it possible for the Times Daily of Florence, Ala., to request access to information and correspondence between the Coffee Health Group and potential buyers of the two hospitals the group was trying to sell.
“The sale of assets of a public hospital and possibly the ultimate disposition of that hospital, which provides care to the citizens in the community, should be a matter open for public discourse,” the court said.
“It would have been a major blow to the public if the circuit court’s opinion had been allowed to stand,” said Dennis Bailey, the attorney representing the newspaper.
Reporters with the Daily requested access to e-mails between employees of the hospitals, the Alabama health care authority board of directors and elected officials regarding the sale of the hospitals as well as proposals, reports and drafts of contracts in February 2010.
The newspaper's biggest concern was why information surrounding the sale of a public organization and the largest employer in the county was not open to the public.
The Daily alleged that the health care authority is a governmental entity, making records relating to the sale or transfer of its public assets subject to the Open Records Act. The authority denied the paper’s requests, claiming that because health care authorities are exempt from the Open Meetings Act, they are also exempt from the Open Records Act.
“[The Health Care Authority's] interest is not rooted in preventing disclosure of confidential information to the media or concerned citizens. Instead, the threat lies with the harm that will occur if sensitive, confidential information is disclosed to their competitors,” the authority said in its brief to the court.
The newspaper filed a lawsuit in March when the authority refused to comply with its requests.
In rendering its ruling, the state Supreme Court cited a 2007 state attorney general advisory opinion that recognized the health care authority as a public corporation. The court also found that “there was no evidence indicating that the potential bids or the letter of intent to purchase a publicly owned hospital required confidentiality.”
And because the companies have already submitted their bids for the hospitals, the court found no risk of one seeing another’s proposal and having an unfair advantage.
The case will return to the circuit court to determine if any of the requested documents can still be withheld from the newspaper under state Open Records Act exemptions.
“There are certain statutes that protect certain hospital data, but I’ll be very surprised if any information like that is contained in the bids that were submitted,” Bailey said. He expects the newspaper to gain access to all the information it requested.
Attorney Larry Moore, who is representing the health care authority, was not available for comment.