Singing River Health

Supervisors told to stay mum on SRHS settlement proposal

PASCAGOULA -- The Jackson County Board of Supervisors meeting at times Monday was an uproar with a room full of people interested in a proposed settlement in the Singing River Health System pension fiasco.

Attorney Harvey Barton, representing 150 retirees and employees, in the hallway outside the meeting told a group, and television cameras, that the proposal isn't good.

He said it lets the county off the hook for $13.6 million, and $6.4 million of that will go to attorney fees.

The SRHS promise to pay $142 million over the next four decades is just that, he said, a promise that is not backed by the county.

"We know the hospital system has financial problems," Barton said.

Inside, he told county supervisors his clients have been excluded from the deal, "a deal in which the only real money is the $13 million paid by the county, and once it's paid out, the county has absolved itself from any responsibility.

"The only thing to protect these people is Jackson County, the only one with pockets deep enough," he said. "If you can guarantee $100 million in bonds for the hospital, why can't you guarantee the pension plan?

"If you'll just say, 'We'll guarantee the payments by the hospital,' then case closed."

Barton's clients want 100 percent of the original pension contract, where they paid in 3 percent of their income to the plan, there was a hospital match and they got a percentage of their income for life.

No comment

Billy Guice, the county's attorney for the hospital issue, told the crowd he has advised the supervisors not to comment on the matter. The proposed settlement is an unsigned document that came out of federal mediation and he said the mediation is confidential.

"We are not to discuss the process," Guice said. "We are not to talk about anything that has transpired ... of what the terms of the mediation may be and not to discuss whatever is in the document."

The county hospital system admitted to financial difficulties in early 2014 and last October voted to take apart the employee pension plan to save money. More than 600 retirees and current employees who are vested in the plan are affected by the decision. Retirees sued the hospital, the county intervened and stopped action against the pension. A Chancery Court judge has upheld keeping the pension in place, making payments until the issue is resolved. About a dozen retirees have a case in U.S. District Court and their attorneys are trying to form a class for class action in the case. The lead attorney in that case is Jim Reeves, and the proposed settlement document had his name on it.

Barton and fellow attorney Earl Denham say their clients won't join the federal case or a class.

They are fighting in Chancery Court.

'Not a good deal'

While Barton was hitting the issue hard with retirees during a break in the board meeting, one retiree was handing out applications to join the lawsuit. Because there are hundreds of employees and retirees involved who aren't in any suit, Barton said, a class action could be a solution to include employees who are vested, but afraid they'll lose their job if they sue to protect their pension. However, he said, that is not the deal that Reeves is presenting.

"The problem with the proposed settlement is that it's just not a good deal," he said, and it doesn't protect the group for the long term.

During public comment, retired nurse Phyllis Denmark told the board she was a nurse at SRHS for 22 years and now faces losing her pension.

"Somebody dropped the ball, someone has to be held responsible," she said. "Deals are still being made in secret. We citizens of Jackson County want an open forum and we have not gotten that yet, to this day.

"I don't understand that," she said. "We are not children; this is our livelihood."

Candidates for the District 5 supervisor seat spoke out.

Allen Williams turned to the crowd at the board meeting and said, "For the record, I'm absolutely behind you guys. There has to be an answer."

Randy Bosarge said he wasn't comfortable with attorney fees at $6.4 million for less than a year's work.

He also asked the Board of Supervisors not to agree to something that will take control of the hospital out of the hands of elected county leaders. The county now appoints the Board of Trustees that oversees the hospital system and the proposed settlement sets up another panel of four to oversee hospital operations.

"Please do not take the trustee appointee away from this board," Bosarge said, "and any other future Board of Supervisors."

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