By Tia Lynn Ivey
With just one day to spare, John Anton, who challenged the Morgan Memorial Hospital Authority (MMHA) in court and lost last month, agreed to forgo filing for an appeal if the MMHA would meet certain demands. The MMHA held a special called meeting in executive session Tuesday evening to hammer out the deal and sign the agreement.
According to Stephen Morris, Anton’s attorney, Anton agreed to drop the appeal if the MMHA Chairman, Terry Evans, would step down from the board after his term is up, and if the authority would issue a public statement pledging to never ask the county for additional money outside of the $1 million per year stipend that is currently stipulated in the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the county and the MMHA. The settlement agreement also calls for the authority to revise its bylaws to ensure every district in the county is represented on the MMHA board and to possibly establish term limits for the board members.
“It’s a positive step. This is a way that both sides can avoid a costly appeal,” said Morris. “We are looking forward to seeing more changes on the board in the future. But having Terry Evans resign from board when his term is up on June 30 of this year is a good start.”
Hospital officials are eager to put this ordeal behind them and to move forward with building the new hospital.
“From day one, the entire board agreed not to allow politics, family, religion, friends, business or personal feelings interfere with decisions made regarding the new hospital,” said Terry Massey, attorney for the MMHA. “It is a very bittersweet moment that the authority has agreed not to nominate chairman Terry Evans as a member of the authority at the request of the intervener. This tough decision allows the authority to move forward with construction of the new hospital without further delay in order to do what is best for the healthcare in Morgan County,”
According to Morris, Anton wanted Evans off the MMHA because he believes Evan was “unreceptive” to the public’s concerns over the new $35 million replacement hospital project. With the promises made in the settlement agreement, Anton is hoping it will ensure more “public dialogue” and “citizen input” with both MMHA and the Morgan County Board of Commissioners.
“This will hopefully allow some public dialogue on the make up of the authority itself and their role in regards to long-term healthcare in the county,” said Morris. “We hope to see further changes in both the authority’s and county commissioners’ ordinances as this entire process as revealed major flaws in both entities.”
Anton’s case alleged that the IGA between MMHA and the county is invalid for two reasons: that the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) did not have a true majority when they voted 2-1 to up MMHA’s funding to $1 million per year for the next 25 years and that “constitutionally” the county has no legal authority to enter into an IGA with the hospital in the first place. The Morgan County Superior Court ruled in favor of MMHA in early March, approving the hospital’s bond validation request, which was necessary to move forward with the construction of a $35 million replacement hospital, and striking down the complaints filed by Anton, which sought to halt the project from proceeding any further. Whether or not Anton could have won on appeal is undeterminable, but an appeal could have delayed the replacement hospital even longer, and perhaps been detrimental to the entire project. According to hospital officials, it was because of that possibility that they agreed to settle with Anton.
While hospital officials did not believe Anton’s case had legal merit, they worried what a lengthy appeal process could pose for the replacement hospital project. According to Chief of Staff and Hospital Authority Member Dan Zant, M.D., an appeal of the court’s order would cause delays that come with a heavy price, putting local healthcare and local lives at risk.
“Simply stated, you cannot put a monetary value on human life,” said Zant. “If we do not build a new hospital, which we have proven is needed and feasible, we are sending the message that the lives of our local citizens are not worth the expense of a new facility.”
Hospital officials plan to resume the new hospital project without any further delays.