Jackson County

SRHS pension settlement approved again, but fight probably isn’t over

Singing River Health System retirees brought their protest to Singing River Hospital in Ocean Springs in 2015.
Singing River Health System retirees brought their protest to Singing River Hospital in Ocean Springs in 2015. SUN HERALD File

A federal judge on Friday once again approved a settlement in the Singing River Health System pension case.

Opponents of plan, negotiated by SRHS and only some of the plan members, appealed U.S. Judge Louis Guirola Jr.’s original settlement. Then in July, a three-judge appeals court panel sent the case back to Guirola, questioning the fairness of the settlement he approved, which called for SRHS to pay more than $150 million to the pension plan over 35 years, and questioned whether SRHS would be able to make those payments.

“Based upon the record before it, the Fifth Circuit identified several well-taken issues of concern and remanded the matter to this Court for additional consideration,” Guirola wrote in his latest ruling. “Those issues have now been addressed and the record has been supplemented by expert testimony and evidence. The objectors have been given their full and fair ‘day in court.’”

He said there was no evidence presented to back up the claim that SRHS wouldn’t be able to pay the $150 million into the plan.

A special fiduciary appointed to oversee the plan testified that last year the plan paid over $1 million a month for 11 months and $2.7 million in December when retirees received their cost of living checks. Traci Christian also predicted that, left unchanged, the plan would be broke by 2025.

She said there are 725 retirees receiving benefits and hundreds more set to begin getting checks. In all, there are 3,200 people in the plan, including some who left SRHS and others who have yet to retire.

SRHS had stopped paying into the plan from 2009 through 2014 without telling the participants. That was a major factor in its financial difficulties.

Attorney Harvey Barton, who represents about 200 plan members who oppose the settlement along with attorney Earl Denham, said Friday they would appeal back to appeals court should Guirola approve the settlement. They also have an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton