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Privately run public hospitals subject to open government laws

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Privately run public hospitals subject to open government laws 02/22/99 FLORIDA--When public hospitals willingly turn themselves over to private managers,…

Privately run public hospitals subject to open government laws

02/22/99

FLORIDA–When public hospitals willingly turn themselves over to private managers, they are still subject to open government laws, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in late January.

The public function that triggered the creation of the West Volusia Hospital Authority in Deland, Fla., does not change, the court ruled, saying that the laws that required the authority to operate in the open still apply.

Dinah Pulver, a reporter for The News-Journal of Daytona Beach, was denied access to board meetings in late 1994, immediately after the hospital authority awarded a 40-year lease of its hospital and other assets to Memorial Health Systems, a private firm which owns and operates several other Florida hospitals.

The News-Journal sued the new hospital board in Circuit Court in Deland, which ruled that the hospital was now private and not subject to open government laws. However, the state’s District Court in May 1997 reversed, ruling that the newspaper had a right to attend meetings of the hospital board at Memorial Hospital-West Volusia Inc.

The legislature then passed a law in May 1998 that allowed some closure of meetings of private boards which run public hospitals, permitting them to meet behind closed doors to engage in “strategic planning.”

The hospital appealed the decision to the state’s high court, which ruled that the hospital corporation, acting on the authority’s behalf, is still subject to open government laws.

A dissenting judge said the legislature had reached a major policy decision in an effort to “level the playing field” between public and private hospitals and that the court should honor it.

The News-Journal won a second case in the high court the same day on behalf of its reporter Cindy Brownfield. In another 6-1 ruling, the high court found that meetings between two other area public hospitals to discuss the merger of their operations should not have been closed under the state’s open meetings law.

In that case the court found that the legislative exemption for discussion of “strategic planning” violated the open government provisions of the state constitution.

One justice said, however, that although the statute did not protect these discussions, it was not an unconstitutional restriction on openness. (Memorial Hospital-West Volusia, Inc. v. News-Journal Corp.; Halifax Hospital Medical Center v. News-Journal Corp.; Media Counsel: Jonathan Kaney Jr., Daytona Beach)