A public window seemed to open Thursday on operations of the nonprofit corporation that operates publicly owned Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna.
The CPGH Inc. board covered a long agenda in open session before discussing unspecified legal issues in private.
The most noticeable gap in the public part of its meeting was the lack of supporting documents for the audience. CPGH Inc. president Diana Zirul said she hopes in the future to provide public information packets similar to those provided at Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings.
"I see the meeting as being run a lot more openly," said Ed Oberts, assistant to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley. "I think there is positive progress. We're almost there, and they're starting to invite the service area board to participate."
Specifically, the board voted to invite the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board and Central Peninsula Counseling Service to participate on a committee discussing hospital plans to open out-patient mental health services. Earlier this spring, the CPGH Inc. board invited the service area board to appoint a representative to the hospital's strategic planning committee.
"I think we need to involve them in things that are their business," CPGH Inc. board member Ken Meachum said Thursday. "I really do believe in using the resources we have in the community for the betterment of the community."
The borough owns the $40 million Central Peninsula General Hospital but leases it to CPGH Inc. The Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area raises about $1 million per year in property taxes to help support it.
The controversy over public access to corporation meetings and records reached a boiling point after Gene Dyson, a member of the elected service area board, tried to attend a February corporation meeting.
"A couple of minutes into the meeting, I was told to leave," he said later.
The CPGH Inc. board also declined to give the service area board certain planning documents.
In an April 24 letter, Bagley suggested amending the corporation's contract to require that its meetings be held largely in public and to clarify that most documents pertaining to performance of the contract are public. The CPGH Inc. board rejected those amendments.
"The major difference is that the mayor was suggesting contract changes," Zirul said. "We're suggesting that the contract is fine, and we're suggesting policy changes to clarify that what we're doing is in compliance with the contract."
Policies adopted May 10 allow public attendance when the board hears presentations from the public and discusses proposals for which the contract requires borough approval. Zirul said the policies allow the board to add other topics to the public agenda.
They also say the board will close its doors to discuss matters including, but not limited to, "medical staff, credentialing for health care providers, personnel, patient or other health care customers, contracts and legal issues, proprietary matters, internal corporate policies and other nonprofit corporate business items."
They say CPGH Inc. is not subject to the Alaska Open Meetings Act, which requires prior notice of and public access to meetings of government bodies.
The board has agreed that many financial records about hospital operations are public, but it still maintains that its proprietary records are private.
Zirul said the board's actions provide the perspective.
"Their actions are that we will conduct most business in open session," she said. "We believe strongly in the need for support from the public and the need to keep them informed."
Assembly member Tim Navarre of Kenai said he thinks the board has always tried to work with the community. Its members often attend meetings of the service area board, he said, and the hospital staff participates in Healthy Communities/Healthy People.
Jim Clark, chairman of the service area board, said he thinks CPGH Inc. is at least trying to appear more open, but the public never knows what takes place in executive session.
"Whether the most important stuff is in the open part of their meeting remains to be seen," he said. "I'd think the most important point is about competition, and it's not competition with Anchorage. It's competition with providers in this community."
The service area board will try to contribute to the hospital's community survey, Clark said.
"But from the get-go, we ought to realize that we have different needs and purposes," he said. "Our concern is with the broad assessment of community need, not someone's market share. They're in the business of maximizing their market share."
Oberts, Navarre, a local physician, a representative of Providence Health System of Alaska and a reporter were the only outside observers at Thursday's meeting. Zirul said the board seldom draws much of an audience.
Dyson's February visit was the only time she could remember seeing a member of the service area board at a CPGH Inc. board meeting.
"I think the perception has been that we weren't particularly welcome," Clark said. "I'm not aware of anything that has materially changed that picture. If they welcomed us, I think there are several members that would want to attend from time to time."
Navarre said he thinks relations will improve as service area board members participate on CPGH Inc. committees.
"I think they'll realize that to get more informed, they'll have to come to some of the hospital's meetings," he said.
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