Hospital board bill fails

By JACK RYAN,

The Mississippi House made a mistake on Wednesday when it was unable to pass a bill that set out specific conflict-of-interest rules for members of public hospital boards.

The House rejected Senate Bill 2614 by a vote of 53-56, meaning that several members of the Republican majority voted against the bill. The Senate had approved the bill unanimously.

Hospital boards came under scrutiny a few years ago when the trustees at Singing River Health System in Pascagoula, under the shield of a state law that allowed them to meet in private, stopped making contributions to its employee pension fund for five years because of financial difficulties — and kept the decision secret. Only now is the hospital settling a lawsuit to make the contributions it was supposed to.

When word got out about what Singing River had done, the Legislature responded by eliminating the closed meetings loophole that hospitals had enjoyed for decades. But this week, the House chose not to address potential conflicts of interest among hospital board members.

The bill stated that hospital board members cannot own or work for a company or business “that provides goods or services in direct or indirect competition with the community hospital.” It set out the same restrictions for the spouse of a hospital board member.

Perhaps the majority of House members that voted against the bill thought it was too strict. A public hospital in a small community may have trouble finding board members from its business community who could avoid any conflict-of-interest entanglements.

But because of the rapidly rising cost of medical care, hospitals now manage giant budgets — in many cases larger than school districts or county governments. Taxpayers should expect that people appointed to the boards of publicly owned hospitals will act with the best interest of the institution in mind. A strong conflict-of-interest law is one way to encourage this.

The House is scheduled to reconsider the bill, which merits approval.