Northside Hospital has lost another round in court in its long-running open records fight. But the case still may have more time to run before a final resolution.
The new ruling comes almost a year after the Georgia Supreme Court reversed lower court decisions that barred access to Northside’s financial records and sent the case back to the original trial court.
The legal saga is being closely watched by the Georgia hospital industry and may have repercussions on public access to their financial and other records.
Atlanta-based Northside said that the plaintiff who brought the original records request, attorney E. Kendrick Smith, was doing so on behalf of one of Northside’s business competitors.
But the latest decision, handed down last week by the Georgia Court of Appeals, said it doesn’t matter who’s requesting records, or why. The only thing that matters is whether the records in question are deemed public under the law.
Northside also has long argued that it is not bound by the open records law. The nonprofit hospital organization has contended that because it’s a private nonprofit corporation, not a public entity, this particular law does not apply to it.
Lee Echols, vice president of marketing at Northside Hospital, said Monday that Northside “is reviewing the court’s decision and assessing our next steps in this matter.”
The Supreme Court decision a year ago sent the case back to the trial court to determine which records should be produced.
“By the latest ruling, the court has reiterated what Georgia courts have always ruled,’’ attorney Peter Canfield, who represents Smith, told GHN. “In public records cases, the issue is whether the records are public, not who wants them or why.’’
Northside’s corporate structure resembles many others in the state.
Many hospital authorities, for business purposes, have spun off their hospitals into separate nonprofit corporations. Under such an arrangement, the hospital authority leases the assets of the hospital to the corporation.
Restructured hospitals include large urban facilities such as Grady in Atlanta, along with medical centers in Savannah, Augusta, Macon, Rome and Albany, as well as in the Atlanta suburbs.
Attorney Canfield has argued for the plaintiff that Northside is subject to the Georgia Open Records Act because it was created by a public hospital authority, which is a government entity, and that the system operates solely on the authority’s behalf.
Northside’s restructuring occurred in the early 1990s. It’s now an extremely successful hospital system. Last year, it reported net income of more than $300 million, according to American Hospital Directory.
Its deal to add Gwinnett Medical Center, a large suburban system, has been long delayed, with experts pointing to possible federal regulatory snags.
The fight over Northside’s records and hospital privacy began in 2013, when Smith requested information about how much Northside spent in acquiring physicians’ practices.
That same year, the AJC reported about patients who faced higher bills after Northside acquired two of those physicians’ practices. The hospital turned down the newspaper’s open records request on the matter.
The Georgia Open Records Act, known as a “sunshine law,” was created to let people know what government agencies are doing. Ordinary citizens, lawyers and reporters routinely use the act to find out how agencies make decisions and spend money.
Media outlets, which make frequent use of open records requests to investigate and report stories, traditionally favor broad access. The Georgia Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation, the Savannah Morning News and the AJC are among organizations that filed amicus briefs supporting the Smith appeal.
Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News