Jackson County

SRHS retirees will caravan to New Orleans to appeal settlement

Members of the Singing River Health System retirees group from Pascagoula gesture to lawmakers in 2015, when the SRHS pension issue was before the Legislature. The House passed a bill designed to bring more transparency to the way publicly owned hospitals are run.
Members of the Singing River Health System retirees group from Pascagoula gesture to lawmakers in 2015, when the SRHS pension issue was before the Legislature. The House passed a bill designed to bring more transparency to the way publicly owned hospitals are run. AP File

Singing River Health System retirees — still fighting for a sound financial pension settlement — will head for New Orleans on Thursday to see their attorneys pitch oral arguments before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The retirees have become like a family over the two years they have picketed the hospital system, attended court hearings and watched every move in the Legislature that involved the SRHS pension.

More than a dozen will pack up early Thursday, meet at a church in Escatawpa and caravan to Louisiana for a 10 a.m. hearing before a panel of three judges, even though they know the courtroom seating is limited to 75 and there will be a lot of attorneys on both sides who will need seats.

They know the rules. There will be a 20-minute argument by each side and five-minute rebuttals. The judges will ask questions.

Retiree Kitty Aguilar estimated the whole thing will be finished in two hours. Then there is the wait.

A decision could come right way or take up to two months as the judges write their opinion.

The appeal is an effort by a group of about 200 retirees to allow an opt-out clause in or completely stop the pension settlement U.S. District Court Judge Louis Guirola Jr. signed off on last year.

Attorney Harvey Barton has argued and will argue the settlement is flawed.

The settlement would refund what the hospital failed to pay into the floundering pension from 2009 to 2014, about $55 million, Barton told the Sun Herald. And they have 35 years to do that, he said. The settlement doesn’t take into account the roughly $60 million SRHS failed to put into the pension plan for 2015 through 2017, while the case was being argued in court.

Barton and Attorney Earl Denham have filed the appeal.

“There is no plan to save the plan,” Barton said. Jackson County owns the hospital system, but the settlement does not hold the county accountable for keeping the pension afloat.

“It allows the only taxing authority to walk away for $13 million,” he said. So when the money runs out, there will be no way to raise more.

The settlement applies to all 3,173 current and former employees who participated in the pension plan, including those who oppose it.

However, the payment will amount to a total of $150 million because it is being stretched over 35 years and includes interest. Jackson County agreed to contribute $13 million for indigent care at SRHS, freeing up health-system funds for pension payments.

SRHS also will pay $6.4 million in legal fees to the class- action attorneys over four years. Denham and Barton say the class attorneys are receiving the only “definitive payment” laid out in the settlement.

SRHS retirees attend fairness hearing at federal court in Gulfport.

Sun Herald reporter Anita Lee contributed to this story.

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