Thursday, August 30, 2007
County, ETMC settle lawsuit
By Pearl Cantrell and Michael Hannigan
Monitor Staff Writers
ATHENS–Henderson County Commissioners accepted a settlement agreement with East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System Tuesday, just one day before ETMC and the county were scheduled to appear before a federal judge.
While details of the agreement cannot officially be released until all parties sign and the court publishes the settlement, county officials seemed pleased.
“I’ve been looking for this day for a year and a half,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry West said as he seconded the motion.
“It provides the county with indigent health care program with the least amount of expense, and insures the basis for a healthy relationship between ETMC and the county,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney said.
ETMC attorney Dean Davis could not be reached for comment before presstime Tuesday.
The settlement brings to an end a sometimes-ugly battle which began with a letter by County Attorney James Owen. In that November 2004 letter, Owen wrote that ETMC Athens was in contractual default with the Henderson County Hospital Authority Board on two issues: malpractice insurance and indigent health obligations.
After much arguing back and forth and the reconstitution of the Authority Board in March 2006, ETMC filed suit against the county in United States District Court.
In its annual report earlier this year, the Authority Board described the reason for the lawsuit as “[ETMC’s] inability to allow threat of confiscation of all their medical facilities in Henderson County, and various other actions, to remain unresolved.”
Pretrial motions in that lawsuit were scheduled to begin in Tyler Wednesday, Henderson County Judge David Holstein told The Monitor.
“I was anticipating going to court,” he said. “It was a long shot that we’d have an agreement,” he said.
According to Owen, ETMC had asked to postpone the trial until April 2008, and the county agreed. The judge in the case, however, denied the motion and set the trial, Owen said
That decision reignited the negotiations.
“I didn’t know we had an agreement until 5 p.m. Monday,” Holstein said.
Owen and Holstein, who were both personally named in the lawsuit, said the deal could be worth as much as $800 million in saved indigent health care costs over the course of the 60-year agreement.
Each year, the county has paid for what it considers indigent health care from inmate health care, indigent care through other than the hospital, and through county residents getting indigent care outside the county. All that added up to $165,000 in 2006, Holstein said.
Those expenses will now be paid by ETMC through the annual state tobacco settlement funds, as stipulated in the settlement.
With medical care inflation costs rising about 9 percent a year factored into all the money that is saved over 60 years and add 5 percent growth for investment – it’s close to a billion dollars.
“The settlement resolves the controversy and commits ETMC to serve the indigent population of this county for the long term,” Owen said.
The original 1967 agreement with ETMC had the intent of relieving the county of the cost of indigent health care, including physician services, which back then were handled by the hospital, Holstein explained.
“The intent of that agreement has been restored,” he said.
The Hospital Authority Board – which was also named in the lawsuit – meets at 3 p.m. Thursday (today) at ETMC Athens to consider the agreement.
A second future-building action was taken following the closed executive session. Commissioners approved an option to purchase a 44.3 -acre tract one mile north of the jail inside Loop 7 and adjacent to Athens Steel.
The county has 60 days to finalize the purchase.
“With the growing population in the county and the government’s need to grow with it, this action takes us one step forward in procuring a successful future,” Holstein said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Ronny Lawrence was recognized for seeking out suitable property.
The commissioners approved two checks to be issued Tuesday: one for $2,500 to buy the option from the Sarah Alice Cox Family Trust and a second one for $5,000 as earnest money to the escrow company.
Commissioners hear air quality rule
Get along, little buckaroo