Court declares Northside Hospital’s operations can’t be kept secret

The Judicial Building downtown houses the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Judicial Building downtown houses the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday declared that records related to a corporation’s operation of Northside Hospital are public records, a decision that delighted open government proponents.

But the court declined to resolve a dispute between the hospital and an attorney who sought records of Northside's $100 million acquisition of four physician practices. When Northside refused to turn over those documents, the lawyer, E. Kendrick Smith, sued the hospital.

After lower courts ruled against him, Smith appealed. On Thursday, the Supreme Court sent the case back, telling a trial judge to decide how closely related the acquisition was to the operation of the hospital’s facilities.

At the same time, the justices rejected Northside Hospital's contention that it was not subject to the state's sunshine laws.

"The corporation's operation of the hospital and other leased facilities is a service it performs on behalf of the (county's) agency, and so records related to that operation are public records," Justice Nels Peterson wrote.

Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs.

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County commissioners created the Fulton County Hospital Authority in 1966 to provide health care throughout the county, Peterson noted. To that end, the authority opened Northside Hospital, which it operated for the next 25 years.

In 1991, however, the authority restructured that operation with a long-term lease of the hospital to be run by a private, nonprofit corporation — Northside Hospital Inc.

Now, the corporation argues that it doesn’t do anything on behalf of the county agency, and for this reason its records of health-care-related acquisitions aren’t subject to public inspection, the ruling said.

If the corporation’s “aggressive position were wholly correct, it may well cast serious doubt on the legality of the whole arrangement between the corporation and the agency,” Peterson wrote.

Richard Griffiths, board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said he was thrilled with the decision.

“Transparency is the best way to maintain accountability to the taxpayers who funded Northside and justifiably own it,” said Griffiths, former CNN vice president. “Government agencies can’t spin off private entities so they can avoid public records scrutiny. The key, big win is that Northside Hospital is a huge part of Fulton County and has to be open about its operations.”

Lee Echols, the hospital’s vice president of marketing, had a different take on the court’s decision.

“We are grateful that the Georgia Supreme Court has decisively rejected (Smith’s) claim that virtually every Northside Hospital document is a public record,” he said.

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“The single goal of Mr. Smith has been to gain access, on behalf of a Northside Hospital competitor, to confidential business information that is clearly protected from disclosure,” Echols said. He added the hospital “looks forward to prevailing” as the case moves forward.

Atlanta lawyer Peter Canfield, who represents Smith, expressed confidence the hospital will not be able to keep its acquisition records under wraps.

In the lower courts, the hospital argued that none of its records were subject to disclosure, Canfield said. “That argument has now been emphatically rejected by the Supreme Court.”