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Records: DHA paid Delta Council $1M for ‘administrative’ services

December 25th, 2011 2 comments

The Delta Health Alliance has paid an average of $272,000 the past four years for an administrative contract with the Delta Council.

Those figures are spelled out in DHA tax returns.

In 2008, DHA paid Delta Council $293,630 for administrative services. In 2009 and 2010, that number dropped to $275,000. For the fiscal year that ended June 30,2011, DHA paid Delta Council $246,125.

In a phone interview in late November, Delta Council executive vice president Chip Morgan told the Mississippi Business Journal the economic development organization provided back-office services for the nonprofit DHA, which provides healthcare for the poor in the Delta.

Roy Campbell III, a Jackson attorney who represents DHA, said in an email that Delta Council has provided accounting and management services that “have included general bookkeeping and accounting services, payroll and check writing services, internal auditing and procurement services, logistics and administrative support for meetings and events, and community liaison work.”

The CEO of DHA, Dr. Karen Fox, is under investigation by Mississippi’s Northern District U.S. Attorney for possible misuse of agency funds. It’s unknown if DHA’s contract with Delta Council is a part of that investigation. Her attorney has said he’s confident Fox will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Although DHA’s website lists Morgan as an active board member, Campbell said Morgan has not served on the board since 2007, when DHA first issued a request for proposals for accounting and management consulting services.

Of the three responses to the RFP, Campbell said, Delta Council’s was the lowest, coming in at roughly $275,000 annually. The other two, from companies Campbell did not name, were $500,000 and $552,000 annually. Campbell said DHA’s contract with Delta Council is for five years.

Morgan did not respond to calls and text messages to his cell phone last week.

Since 2006, most of DHA’s funding has come via a competitive grant process administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Campbell said DHA does not receive its funding through direct appropriations, and the agency has not paid anyone to lobby for funding on its behalf.

In 2006, an appropriation bill for HRSA included $25 million for DHA. A continuing resolution in 2007 stripped funding for the agency. Funding was restored via a provision in the 2008 farm bill that created a USDA Health Care Services competitive grant program that authorized an annual appropriation of $3 million from 2008 to 2012. DHA has successfully competed for some of that funding, which was open to counties in the Mississippi River Delta, according to a spokesperson for Sen. Thad Cochran.

Also in 2008, Cochran was instrumental in securing a $25 million earmark from HRSA for DHA, in the form of a grant. In 2009, Cochran used the same method to secure $26 million for DHA; in 2010, he secured $35 million.

The money dried up in 2011 and 2012, as part of a moratorium enacted after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans whose platform included eliminating earmarks won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cochran spokesperson Chris Gallegos said records that charted who Cochran met with, or who may have lobbied for DHA’s funding, were not available.

“Over the years, the Cochran office has worked with a number of officials associated with the Delta Health Initiative, just as the senator’s office works with other constituents and groups from Mississippi,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “The exact dates, times and attendees of such meetings over the past six years are not available. Sen. Cochran is, of course, supportive of thorough oversight and accountability for the proper use of all federal funds.”

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Financial relationship between UMMC, DHA remains in place

December 18th, 2011 No comments

Mentioned throughout the court file of James Hahn’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the Delta Health Alliance is a possible grant from DHA to University of Mississippi Medical Center to help the hospital pay for implementing electronic health records.

The hospital’s move toward EHRs is part of the mandates spelled out in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A hospital spokesman told the Mississippi Business Journal in early November that the process would cost $70 million over the next five years.

In a motion for summary judgment, DHA attorneys asked Lafayette County Circuit Judge John Gregory to bar Hahn’s attorney, Jim Waide, from seeking information about DHA possibly awarding a multi-million dollar grant to UMMC to implement EHRs, contingent upon the hospital using Chicago-based Allscripts as its software provider. In 2008, according to court filings, DHA paid Allscripts $1.775 million. DHA attorneys argued Waide’s seeking information about the grant during discovery was improper, because Hahn had not mentioned the claims in his original complaint.

Hahn, who was DHA’s senior vice president of programs before his May 2010 termination, said in his initial complaint that DHA CEO Dr. Karen Fox had improperly spent agency money for personal expenses, including a condo in Oxford, babysitting services and to pay an attorney for a private legal matter. The nonprofit’s board of directors approved each of the expenses, in a resolution adopted about three months after Hahn filed suit. The case settled last May, with the terms under seal. Fox, who remains DHA’s CEO, is now under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi. Her attorney told the MBJ in late November he’s confident she will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Jack Mazurak, spokesperson for UMMC, wrote in an email to the MBJ that between July 2006 and June 2009, the hospital received a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration that was administered through DHA via a sub-agreement between the hospital and the nonprofit.

Under the agreement, the hospital was awarded a budget of $3.5 million to implement EHRs. The grant was on a reimbursement basis; and between fiscal year 2007 and FY 2009, Mazurak wrote, the hospital invoiced DHA for $3.2 million for the project. Roy Campbell III, a Jackson attorney who represents DHA, said in an email to the MBJ that the total budgeted amount for the project was $6.7 million. Mazurak and Campbell each said the sub-grant remains active.

In a phone interview, Mazurak said when the grant was first awarded, Allscripts was one of the vendors selected after a Request for Proposals to implement EHRs at some of UMMC’s outpatient facilities that serve the Delta. One of the modifications made to the grant’s terms was the selection of a new vendor whose technology would allow connectivity between EHRs at the hospital’s outpatient facilities and those at the primary inpatient hospital in Jackson.

“The original grant was not specific to Allscripts,” Mazurak said, when he was asked if the grant was contingent upon the hospital using the Chicago company. The only conditions attached to the grant, Mazurak added, were accountability and oversight provisions that normally accompany federal grants. Mazurak added that the investigation of Fox has not altered the hospital’s relationship with DHA.

Mazurak said the hospital and the nonprofit have several other joint ventures, including an asthmatic center in Greenville, a mental healthcare services and educational programs for junior high school students.

Campbell wrote in his email that the two entities “continue to work together collaboratively on EHRs to increase the access of healthcare and to improve the quality of healthcare to patients in the Mississippi Delta.”

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With construction underway, Natchez casino encounters more resistance

December 15th, 2011 No comments

The Roth Hill Casino in Natchez is already technically under construction, with piles being driven into the ground.

I’ve covered the ins and outs of this oft-delayed project for over a year now. The last time I spoke with the CEO of Premier Gaming, whose company is managing the project, he seemed pretty confident that the casino had cleared its last hurdle.

A story in today’s Natchez Democrat,though, throws cold water on that notion. The Natchez Preservation Commission laid out several concerns about the overall design in a Wednesday night meeting. The story even quotes former MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown, who has already made known his intentions to run for Natchez Mayor next year.

It doesn’t look good for the casino. Read the entire story here.

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Opponents of Diamondhead incorporation attempt Hail Mary

December 12th, 2011 No comments

Opponents of Diamondhead incorporation are down to their last strike.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Oct. 27 that efforts to incorporate the retirement village in Hancock County could proceed. Objectors had appealed to the high Court after a ruling in Hancock County Chancery Court went against them.

At issue is objectors’ assertion that they did not receive proper notice of a hearing in January 2009, the evidence presented at which led to the ruling on the chancery level.

John Fletcher, a resident and member of the Diamondhead Property Owners Association who opposes incorporation, said at the first hearing on the matter, in September 2008, the presiding judge recused himself. That led to the hearing being continued until the Supreme Court could appoint another judge to preside. The second hearing with the newly appointed chancellor was held in January 2009, a hearing Fletcher said he was unaware of, and didn’t attend.

It was at that hearing that those in favor of incorporation presented their case.

Attorneys for objectors argued in their appeal to the Supreme Court that incorporation supporters failed to provide public notice of the second hearing. The Court ruled 9-0 in its October decision that because proper notice had been given prior to the original hearing on the matter in September 2008, it applied to the January 2009 hearing. The Court also noted that the incorporation petition had gained the signatures of two-thirds of Diamondhead’s registered voters.

David McCarty, a Jackson attorney who represents Fletcher and a group of objectors, filed a motion for rehearing Nov. 28, essentially asking the Court to reconsider its decision, citing the lack of due process as a “major reason” it should do so.

Specifically, McCarty acknowledges that proper notice was given for the hearing on Sept. 15, 2008. But once that hearing was continued until January 2009, no further notice was given, violating incorporation objectors’ due process.

“That’s our main concern,” McCarty said in an interview last week, of the lack of notice of the January hearing. “We’re not accusing them of a bait and switch, but this is a loophole that could be exploited in some other instance. We’d like the Court to close it. Incorporation does have some benefits, but it inherently means taxes. When people are living paycheck to paycheck, new taxes don’t help.”

Ridgeland attorney Jerry Mills, who represents the petitioners for incorporation, said the objectors’ motion for rehearing is asking the Court to rule on matters the justices have already decided.

“There’s absolutely nothing new brought up,” he said. “There’s substantial case law supporting the Court’s original decision.”

Fletcher said the objectors’ case was likely doomed when nobody representing them showed up at the January 2009 hearing in Hancock County. Because of that, the reasons he believes show no need for incorporation are not reflected in the trial court record, eliminating them from the Supreme Court’s consideration.

The biggest problem, Fletcher said, is that the Diamondhead POA pursued incorporation using members’ dues, something Fletcher maintains is illegal. He argues that since the POA is a nonprofit organization, it is not allowed to engage in political activity. Fletcher added that the POA’s charter would prohibit it from using member money to pursue incorporation.

Mills said the issue of POA funds being used “is not part of this lawsuit. They’ve made those allegations in the past but they’ve never gone anywhere with them. I disagree with that contention, anyway.”

Fletcher said that, beyond the legality of incorporation’s financing mechanism, there’s simply no need for it. Diamondhead’s infrastructure is already maintained with money from POA dues, which are $80 per month for the roughly 5,000 members. The money also maintains the village’s airport, marina, recreations centers and baseball fields. “You name it, we’ve already got it,” Fletcher said.

“It’s run like a business. Every year, we only spend the money we have. And yet we’ve been able to, over the last 30-years plus, make this into the jewel of the Gulf Coast. There’s no need for a city government because we already have everything we need. It’s so much more economical the way we do it now.”

If the Supreme Court denies the objectors’ motion for rehearing, incorporation would take effect no more than 17 days afterward.

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Waller’s charisma was unforgettable

December 1st, 2011 No comments

Mississippi politics lost one of its more colorful personalities Wednesday when former Gov. Bill Waller Sr. died.

I only had two encounters with Waller, but they were pleasantly memorable. Here they are:

In 2005, while I was at the Yazoo Herald newspaper in Yazoo City, I covered a murder trial in which Waller represented the defendant. Waller’s client, if I’m remembering correctly, had shot the victim more than once in the back after an argument at one of the town’s nightclubs. Waller’s client was at the club planning a birthday party when the incident occurred.

Waller’s strategy was simple: Convince the jury that his client had acted in self-defense. His execution held a lot more flair.

In his opening argument, Waller put on a show. He yelled. He gyrated. At one point, when he was re-enacting the fight that ended with the victim being shot, he grabbed his chest, twirled toward the jury, and hit the deck. It was all jurors — and the rest of us — could do to maintain some kind of composure.

But it worked. Waller’s client was acquitted. In a post-trial interview, I asked Waller how he had done it. “It all goes back to the old colloquialism,” he said in his sing-songy drawl. “Who started the fight? My client didn’t start the fight. My client protected himself the best way he knew how.”

The second came in 2009, when Gov. Haley Barbour was presenting the Medal of Service to a group of Mississippians at his Sillers Building office. Waller was among them. Barbour called the winners up to the podium alphabetically to receive the medal; becase of that, Waller was among the last of the group.

Before Barbour had finished calling his name, Waller leaped out of his seat and bounded to the front. He gave an acceptance speech that went beyond cursory thank-yous.

“This is a great day to be a Mississippian!” Waller bellowed. “And I can’t wait for Mississippi to lead us out of this recession!”

Just like he did in Yazoo City, Waller owned the room. May he rest in glorious peace.

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