Regional Medical Center filed a lawsuit in Calhoun County Circuit Court, asking a judge to allow it to deny an open-records request from The Anniston Star. After RMC announced it was purchasing Jacksonville Medical Center in December, The Star requested details on the deal.
Specifically, we wanted to know how much RMC spent to buy the hospital from Capella Healthcare. RMC has thus far resisted complying with the request. Here’s where the journalism part kicks in.
The role of a journalist is to seek out these details and inform the public. As the authors of Alabama’s open-government laws understood, transparency of public bodies is important in building trust. The public deserves to know how public bodies are conducting important business, such as a major acquisition. As a public body, RMC’s board of directors is subject to the state’s Open Records Act.
Who says so? The members of the Alabama Supreme Court, that’s who. In 2010, the state’s top court ordered the Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County and the city of Florence to release the details, including the price, concerning the sale of two public hospitals. The high court ruled, “The public should be allowed to scrutinize the sale of those assets.”
Membership in 1982’s Health Care Authorities Act of Alabama has its benefits, per the Supreme Court’s ruling, including that they are “exempt from usury laws, interest laws … and from paying property or income taxes.” Compliance with the Open Records Act, the court ruled, goes along with those advantages. Because Regional Medical Center is organized under the same state act — the Health Care Authorities Act of Alabama — as the Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County, The Star didn’t see any debate over whether RMC should disclose what it paid for Jacksonville Medical Center. Frankly, we were somewhat surprised that RMC officials rejected our request. They cited a confidentiality agreement with the seller, an arrangement that’s never before carried weight in Alabama open-records cases.
In subsequent conversations over two months, we made our case to the hospital’s top officials. The newspaper made every effort to avoid taking this to court, which is an option for requesters of public documents under the Open Records Act.
We care about RMC and didn’t want it to waste time and money on such an open-and-shut case, so we did what we could to keep this matter out of a courtroom. Now we find ourselves taken to court by RMC, sued for daring, as we said before, to commit an act of journalism. We contend that’s a waste.
We further contend this matter should be resolved by people of good will outside of a courtroom.