Carr also said Northside made a flawed argument with its narrow interpretation of the circumstances under which an organization is subject to the Open Records Act. "The Act speaks broadly to encompass any 'service or function' performed by a private person or entity for or on behalf of an agency," the attorney general said.
Northside Hospital in Atlanta is a public facility owned by the Hospital Authority of Fulton Court. The authority created the non-profit Northside Hospital Inc. to operate the hospital system. A previous decision by the Georgia Supreme Court determined that non-profit organizations running public hospitals are subject to state's Open Records Act. Journalists and members of the public have relied on this ruling for years to obtain records from hospitals.
However, lower court rulings in this case have favored Northside, which has argued that it is a private organization that is not subject to the act. Northside says Smith is working on behalf of a competitor and is trying to obtain trade secrets from Northside.
Smith requested documents related to Northside's "$100 million acquisition" of four physician practices. The request came after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story in 2013 that documented big increases in patient bills after the acquisition of two of the practices, which are oncology groups.
Northside Hospital participate in a drug discount program that could save the system millions. But it's unclear exactly how patients benefit from Northside's savings.
Credit: Carrie Teegardin
Credit: Carrie Teegardin
The case is being closely watched by news media, health care executives and advocates for open government from across Georgia. Northside and the AJC have been at odds over this issue for several years. In 2013, Northside told the AJC it was not subject to the Open Records Act in response to a request for documents.
for CEOs at metro Atlanta’s nonprofit hospitals for a story that ran in 2014.
While Carr didn't reveal whether he thinks these specific records must be released under the law, he did begin the brief with a strong statement in favor of transparency.
"The attorney General, like most Georgians, believes that 'open government is essential to a free, open and democratic society'" Carr said, citing state law. "Accordingly, the Attorney General - as a champion of open government, and as the State's chief legal officer - urges the Court to honor the plain text of the Georgia Open Records Act, which embodies the State's 'strong public policy . . . in favor of open government.' "
The attorneys in the case made oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court in April. A decision is expected in the fall.