Singing River Health

Five SRHS trustees to resign; pensioners need to see what they'll get

Singing River Health System
Singing River Health System SUN HERALD

PASCAGOULA -- A Chancery Court judge praised efforts for a Singing River Health System pension plan settlement that's coming and asked attorneys Tuesday what he needs to do to cooperate.

Both 10 days and 30 days were mentioned in court Tuesday for clearing up wording and final details in the settlement.

Jackson County supervisors are making way for a new governing board of the hospital, and attorneys for a majority of the clients in the state lawsuit are trying to get concrete payment numbers for retirees.

The settlement document leaked over the weekend has the county hospital system paying into the pension $142 million over the next four decades, Jackson County paying $13.6 million over the next decade and attorney fees at $6.45 million to be paid by September 2018 to a small group of attorneys who handled the federal mediation in the case.

Jackson County issued a statement Tuesday saying none of the $13.6 million in tax dollars will go to attorney fees. County leaders said tax dollars will go to help the hospital with indigent care and to prevent the county hospital from defaulting on their county-backed bonds. Retirees won't pay attorney fee either, attorneys say.

Trustees resign

On another front, the county statement said five of the SRHS trustees plan to resign to make way for a board of new members. The current Board of Trustees will be released from liability in the pension plan debacle, so having them approve a settlement for the plan would be a conflict of interest. The way the county sees the settlement is that an oversight committee of four will be appointed temporarily until county leaders put in a new Board of Trustees.

Also, Jackson County wants to pay for a turnaround firm to lead the county hospital to "financial stability."

The hospital system announced in early 2014 it had been for years stringing along uncollectible debt amounting to $88 million and calling it revenue. Since then, the hospital system has undergone a massive change, cutting programs and clinics, laying people off, consolidating administrative duties and losing doctors. Last October, it voted to dismantle the employee pension plan, retirees sued, the county intervened and the plan was frozen until it could be sorted out in court.

How much will I get?

The settlement proposal doesn't include amounts the 600 plus retirees and 1,500 vested employees of the system can expect to receive in monthly payments from the pension.

The settlement focuses on SRHS paying back money it had failed to put in the pension for 10 years.

"I anticipate the retirees will be taken care of," is the best attorney Jim Reeves, lead counsel in the negotiations, told Chancery Court Judge Breland Hilburn on Tuesday.

Attorney Earl Denham wasn't having that. He pushed over an over that his clients need to know what kind of income to expect.

"Cindy Almond, a widow, needs to know if she will be able to make her house note," Denham said. "It's what we need to know. It needs to be in the record of the court, otherwise this is not a viable plan."

Cisco Aguilar, a retiree who attended the hearing Tuesday, said, "They aren't committing to any percent of benefits" the new pension plan would provide.

When even the plan fiduciary, Steven Simpson, said he didn't have numbers, Aguilar said, "I know that's wrong. He can at least give us an idea what is feasible."

Aguilar said he believes the county and the hospital have calculated it.

There's has been talk that the retirees would see 92 percent of their original benefit, he said.

The rest of the story

Judge Hilburn let the SRHS Foundation out of the suit.

Kelly Sessoms, attorney for SRHS, responded to appointing an oversight committee or hiring a firm to guide the management of the hospital by saying, "We're still evaluating that concept and the process."

It's not the way the Legislature set up the operation of the county hospital system. And the new law, coming into effect in January as a response to Singing River's management problems, doesn't address that either.

"We've got to get all this right on paper first," said Billy Guice, Jackson County's attorney in the SRHS issue, "so everybody knows what's going on."