Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center, which just won Federal Trade Commission permission to buy six area hospitals from Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., now finds itself in another legal scrape. It's being sued by the newspaper in a bordering town for not handing over documents the newspaper wants to write about.
The newspaper, the Kingsport Times-News, paid $100 to become a member of the hospital corporation in 1996.
"The Tennessee code does provide that a not-for-profit hospital must maintain minutes of all meetings of boards of directors," Times-News Managing Editor Ted Como said. "It also provides for inspection of those minutes by members of the corporation. We're members of the corporation, and we're entitled to see them."
Actually, the newspaper has received most of those minutes, but didn't get everything it asked for. The hospital blanked out certain portions that it says are private and confidential. The newspaper seeks unredacted minutes.
So after a flurry of legal correspondence throughout June, the Times-News filed suit in Washington County Circuit Court on June 26. "It's unusual for a newspaper to be filing a lawsuit that does not involve public records," Como said. "The same mission drives us in this instance: to obtain information that would be of interest to our readers."
Any person or organization can purchase for $100 a membership in the Johnson City Medical Center corporation. The corporation has 800 members in the region and an elected board of directors.
The Times-News has been writing about the hospital for months. In front-page articles it has detailed the hospital's expenditures, legal affairs, executives' compensation and board members' business deals with the hospital. In July it revealed the fact that the Tennessee attorney general served the hospital with a civil investigative demand regarding the pending Columbia deal. The attorney general has the power to challenge an acquisition if it raises antitrust concerns.
The newspaper also revealed the hospital's organized letter-writing campaign to the FTC in support of the purchase.
The hospital declined to confirm or deny the attorney general's investigation and regards the newspaper as a hostile force.
Hospital attorney Frank Anderson said that under Tennessee law, the request for minutes must be "made in good faith and for a proper purpose," and describe in "reasonable particularity" the reason they are needed. The newspaper neither acted in good faith nor for a proper purpose, and it failed to describe what it intends to do with the information, he said.
Anderson thinks the newspaper's real intent is to disrupt the medical center's purchase of the Columbia facilities.
In a spirit of cooperation, however, Anderson agreed to hand over the minutes, but he excised about 2% containing details of the Columbia deal. That part, he said, was subject to a confidentiality clause with Columbia and could scuttle the deal. Another part he redacted addressed peer review and medical quality, which he said is privileged and confidential.
The Kingsport Times-News sells 48,000 copies a day in the three cities in northeastern Tennessee, including Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol. It was forced to retract one of its stories, which stated that hospital directors had not filed reports describing their business activities with the hospital, as required under state law. It turned out later that the law applied to Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, not hospitals.
Como takes pains to point out that the newspaper editorially supports the Columbia acquisition but that Johnson City should then divest at least one hospital.
If Columbia's North Side Hospital in Johnson City were bought by JCMC and then resold to Wellmont Health System, a competitor that operates hospitals in Bristol and Kingsport, it would enhance competition throughout the region, the newspaper argued.
"Our intentions are to acquire all the facilities," Anderson replied. "The Kingsport paper endorsing those acquisitions, less one or more of the facilities, is not supportive of our position."
The newspaper and the hospital are trying to avert a long legal struggle and costly depositions. Top management at each organization agreed earlier this month to sit down together with their lawyers to attempt to reach an accommodation, Como said. The date has not been set.
There's one other unusual aspect of the situation: Johnson City Medical Center's board chairman, Tom Hodge, is also editorial director of the hometown Johnson City Press newspaper. The paper has printed little about the recent developments since the Kingsport paper began its wall-to-wall coverage. While Hodge said his paper's coverage has been "very fair," he called the Kingsport paper's coverage "a hatchet job." He blames that on the historical rivalry between the two towns.