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EDITORIAL: Keep UMC’s business open

Clark County has made strides in fixing the problems that beset University Medical Center, the valley’s only publicly owned hospital. It installed new leadership after a former CEO was accused of corruption. And, after much debate among commissioners, the county has created a new nine-member board to manage UMC’s operations, one that is uniquely attuned to the hospital’s needs.

But a recent proposal from the hospital goes too far and should be rejected.

UMC officials are requesting the county introduce a bill at the 2015 Legislature that would carve out an exception to the state’s open meeting law, which would allow the UMC board to meet in private, closed session to discuss “trade secrets.”

UMC needs to improve its mix of paying patients to cover more of the costs of caring for the indigent. New ideas for services are under consideration. And the hospital is — not entirely without reason — concerned that the area’s private hospitals may learn about new UMC initiatives and disrupt them for competitive advantage.

The hospital’s new CEO, Lawrence Barnard, told the Review-Journal’s Ben Botkin that he worries about potential competitors, for example, leasing buildings targeted by the hospital to postpone plans for new services. (More likely is the notion of private hospitals rushing to market with ideas discussed by the UMC board, then objecting that the public hospital should not be in competition with the private sector.)

But there’s no getting past this: UMC is a public hospital. It exists to serve the public, and that it has done well. The region’s only Level 1 trauma center and its burn unit, especially, have saved the lives of people who could not be adequately treated anywhere else in the valley.

But that can’t excuse UMC from following the law as it’s written, even if the net result is a competitive disadvantage. The public — including the valley’s many for-profit hospitals — pays for UMC’s operations, and the idea that an unelected board could exclude the public from decisions that may involve even greater expenditures of taxpayer money is not only inappropriate, it’s unthinkable.

Yes, local governments may recess into closed session for certain, narrow purposes. But their deliberations about spending taxpayer money must be conducted in public. As Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, told Mr. Botkin: “Anytime you give an exemption and allow people to consider public business, which essentially is behind closed doors, there’s no accountability for what was said, what was discussed and what was done. Unfortunately, we see a lot of avoidance of the open meeting law or people trying to get around the open meeting law the way it is.”

The only thing UMC’s board is charged with is deliberating over the proper way to spend tax dollars, so its actions always must be conducted in public. The county would be much better served using its limited number of bill requests to pursue legislation that would have real benefits for the valley’s health care system, such as increasing the number of medical residencies in Southern Nevada. But UMC must do its business in the open. Always.

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