By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – The city council approved a referendum on Mayor Megan Barry’s $9 billion transit plan last week. They also voted to create a special committee to look into the Mayor’s affair with her former bodyguard to make sure there was no misuse of city funds. It passed 30-7-0. And that wasn’t even the good news.
The city council also passed an ordinance that will keep Nashville General Hospital open until June of 2019 and another one that will pay Meharry Medical College $4.4 million the city owes and give Nashville General Hospital $13.2 million to keep it operating through June 2018.
The vote came three months to the day after the Mayor suggested closing down the city’s safety-net hospital on the advice of an unpaid consultant, Kevin Crumbo. Barry has not released Crumbo’s recommendations publicly.
“It has been a remarkable couple of weeks,” said At-Large Councilman John Cooper.
Mayor Faces Two Investigations and an Ethics Complaint
Barry is being investigated by TBI at the request of District Attorney General Glenn Funk. Councilwoman Tanaka Vercher, one of the council bill’s ten sponsors, said the council should do its own investigation because the TBI probably won’t release all the information they collect about the Mayor’s travel and the MNPD Sergeant who accompanied her.
“What we are trying to establish is public accountability….We say we want transparency. We need to show that with action and that’s what this resolution does,” Vercher said.
Using a special committee to investigate possible wrong-doing by a city official is not unprecedented but the last time the council did that was in 1974. Some, if not most, of the councilmen picked to investigate the Mayor have been Barry supporters since she was elected in 2015.
In addition to the two investigations, Theeda Murphy filed an ethics complaint alleging that Barry’s opposition to a Community Oversight Board (COB) was the poisoned fruit of her relationship with a Metro policeman. A bill to create a COB was deferred indefinitely in a council vote 5-25-7 on January 23, 2018. (see Tribune Feb. 8-14).
Under Section 18.10 of the City Charter, the council has the authority to establish a COB that would not only investigate cases of alleged police misconduct but also monitor MNPD finances. Two weeks after the council killed the COB bill, it invoked Sec. 18 to create a committee to investigate the Mayor and look into MNPD’s financial records concerning Sgt. Robert Forrest’s overtime pay.
While the COB vote failed, the Mayor sex scandal committee vote passed. Both required a three-quarter majority or 30 votes. The irony has not been lost on advocates of a COB who say the Mayor’s affair has given them an opening to reintroduce the COB bill in the coming months.
“It’s going to be a street fight,” said Sekou Franklin, a longtime supporter of a COB in Nashville.
Barry’s decision to shutter General Hospital and turn it into an outpatient facility came with a simultaneous announcement that Meharry Medical College had negotiated a deal with HCA’s TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center to start training its residents. That news dismayed some, angered others, and pastors immediately spoke out against the Mayor’s proposal.
As the Tribune has reported, the community organized against Barry’s plan. Hospital officials, ministers, workers, and city officials met in General Hospital’s cafeteria January 6, 2018 to discuss what it would mean if General stopped inpatient medical care. Several council members were there and voiced their support of Nashville General.
Dr. Joseph Webb told the group that quality care for chronically ill patients would no longer be possible if General Hospital became an outpatient clinic. Babies would no longer be delivered there. All medical services that required an overnight stay in a hospital would end if General stopped its current operations.
State Representative Brenda Gilmore said closing the hospital would be financially disastrous. General got $35 million from the city in this year’s budget. It got about $20 million in federal dollars to pay for the services it provides to the poor. It received another $26 million from the state for indigent care, or so-called DISH funding. The last two subsidies would end if General stopped inpatient services and together they make up the biggest part of General’s annual budget.
General is one of four safety net hospitals in Tennessee. If it closed, the city would lose around $50 million it now spends on indigent care. With the Mayor’s blessing, Meharry Medical College formed an 11-member Stakeholders Work Team to figure out how the city would care for the poor if General closed. The group met in private and that drew more criticism from hospital workers and even one member of the stakeholder group, Councilwoman Tanaka Vercher.
The group held a listening session January 23 to get community feedback. (see Tribune Feb 8-14) What they heard was a blistering critique of the city’s priorities and a clear message to Meharry and General to join hands and challenge City Hall.
They did. Dr. James HIldreth, Meharry’s president and hospital officials testified to the Budget and Finance Committee and the Health, Hospitals and Social Services Committee, both of which voted in favor of the bill which the council passed last Tuesday in a 36-0-2 vote. The overwhelming bi-partisan support in favor of General and Meharry has set the stage for an upcoming budget debate on future funding for the hospital.
Besides emergency funding, the bill creates an oversight committee comprised of five council members, someone from the Department of Finance, the Hospital Authority, and Nashville General Hospital. Their job is to address the following issues: the scope of services General will provide, the best location to deliver them, the physician pool, the best arrangement for teaching Meharry residents, the revenue cycle, and the hospital’s capital needs and funding.
The council has essentially taken the General Hospital’s uncertain future out of the hands of the Mayor and the Meharry Stakeholder Work Team and taken on that project for itself.