Vt. hospitals criticize open-meeting proposal
MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration and a Vermont hospital group Wednesday opposed a bill that would apply the state’s open meetings law to hospitals.
Backers like the group Vermont Health Care For All say the state spends nearly $1 billion a year in public money on hospitals, so the public has an interest in their operations and should be able to attend hospital board meetings.
The group’s Ethan Parke told the House Health Care Committee and Senate Health and Welfare Committee in a joint hearing that the public pays hospital bills directly through Medicaid coverage for low-income residents and through Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly.
He said the public also pays indirectly though the private insurance plans offered to teachers, state and municipal employees.
“It’s about the money, the staggering amount of money that pours through our hospitals annually,” Parke said.
The idea drew criticism from state health reform director Robin Lunge, Green Mountain Care Board chairwoman Anya Rader Wallack and Jill Olson of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
Lunge and Olson said the state constitution requires open government meetings, but hospitals are private, nonprofit organizations.
“The open meeting law sets a standard currently for government which says government can’t operate in secret because it is an entity that is elected by the people,” Lunge said. “Hospitals are nonprofit institutions that have charitable missions and work on behalf of the people for the public good, but they’re still nonprofit institutions.”
Wallack said the place for transparency is at her board, which is setting the course for Vermont’s foray into a single-payer, Canada-style health care system scheduled to launch in 2017. The board was created by the Vermont Legislature and its meetings are open to the public.
“If you have an open process for setting the rules of the game, that is just as important as having open meetings that nobody’s going to go to, and probably more important,” she said.
The comments came as the two committees took testimony on a range of issues connected with the health care system. Much of the discussion focused on a March 12 article in Time magazine about how the prices hospitals charge for services and goods frequently far exceed the costs to the institutions.
Olson argued that many of the seemingly irrational aspects of hospital charges are a result of government policy. Hospitals and other health care providers have argued for decades that they collect too little money for caring for Medicaid patients and the uninsured, and must shift those costs to people with private insurance.
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