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Bill would open hospital meetings, expand records access

JACKSONHospital — With troubles at a large public hospital creating political waves on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, lawmakers are trying to make the affairs of hospitals and their pension systems more open.

The full House passed a bill Wednesday to require some public pension systems to report their financial status every year, while a Senate committee passed a bill to require that now-closed public hospital board meetings be opened to the public.

Both are a reaction to the turmoil at Singing River Health System, which runs hospitals in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs. Owned by Jackson County, Singing River announced late last year that it had secretly stopped contributing to its pension fund in 2009. The hospital kept deducting 3 percent from paychecks for employee contributions until Nov. 20, when hospital trustees voted to terminate the plan and pay lump sums to employees to shut down the plan. Employees and retirees who had expected lifetime pensions reacted with anger.

House Bill 871, approved 120-0 by the full House, now moves on to the Senate. It would require government pension systems in Mississippi, except for those run by the Public Employees Retirement System, to prepare annual reports including financial and actuarial statements, as well as describe any major changes in the program. Those documents would be public records, and descriptions of any changes and the annual report would have to be sent to enrollees each year.

Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, said the bill would apply to a handful of other pension systems besides Singing River. He said such a bill would prevent any other pension system from making major changes without telling employees and retirees.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Accountabilty, Efficiency and Transparency Committee passed Senate Bill 2407, which requires that trustees of publicly owned hospitals hold open meetings. It moves to the full Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, allows boards to close meetings for some reasons, including discussing physician recruitment.

It says financial reports, audits, budgets and meeting minutes are public records, and requires financial documents to be posted online.

The bill also would require that all hospital trustees live in the city or county that owns their hospitals; not owe a debt to the hospitals or be involved in a suit against them; and not be convicted felons. The measure would allow county supervisors to remove hospital trustees for good cause.



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