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Jefferson County takes step to exit the healthcare business

The Jefferson County Commission voted to cease inpatient care at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital during an Aughts 2012 meeting. The commissioners voted to run an urgent care clinic along with primary care physician practices and have added speciality services within the walls of Cooper Green. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)
Times staff report

On Tuesday, a divided Jefferson County Commission committee voted to move forward on a university health care authority to manage medical services for the county’s indigent population.

By a narrow 3-2 vote, a committee of all five commissioners approved an agreement to allow a UAB-led healthcare authority to take over operations of Cooper Green Mercy Health Services.

The step means that the county would exit the healthcare business.

Commission President Jimmie Stephens and Commissioners Joe Knight and Steve Ammons voted to move the proposal to the full commission Thursday for ratification.

“UAB is much more qualified and will [provide] state of the art medical care and be able to administer it to more individuals,” said Stephens.

Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson voted against.

“Today wasn’t a good day for poor people of Jefferson County. So transparency was my biggest objection today,” Scales said.

On Wednesday, Scales and Tyson held a press conference outside the Sixth Avenue South facility. “This issue is bigger than politics. It is bigger than who is a Republican or who is a Democrat,” Scales said. “This is about making the right decisions for our residents who need healthcare and those who provide that essential service. Our residents are counting on the County Commission to find the best option for them. I am convinced that we haven’t reached that point.”

The resolution approved by the commission committee on Wednesday would create a new university healthcare authority to run day to day operations at the clinic.

Supporters say UAB can manage healthcare better than the county, and operate more efficiently and provide better patient care.

“Transitioning Cooper Green from under Jefferson County’s operating structure provides it with the necessary flexibility to more effectively manage cost and provide health care to a wider range of Jefferson County’s indigent population,” John Henry, the county’s chief financial officer, told the commission on Tuesday.

Opponents of the agreement expressed concerns about transparency, control and the future of Cooper Green patients and employees.

Tyson said she was worried about county employees who work at Cooper Green having to reapply for their jobs to become UAB workers. She expressed concerns about benefits for those getting close to retirement.

Cooper Green employees stood together after Tuesday’s vote, expressing opposition to the deal.

Dolores Temple is a physical therapist worried about her benefits and retirement.

“We’ll have to start over under them,” she said. “I’d probably take a dramatic cut in pay. I heard I might have to fight for my job.”

The county says Cooper Green employees would have preferred status for employment if the proposed healthcare authority becomes a reality.

Questions were also raised about control on the authority. UAB would have four members on the board and the county would have three. That board make-up is outlined in state legislation.

“UAB is a business and [Tuesday] what we voted on was a business agreement,” Scales said. “It was not to me in the best interest of poor people of Jefferson County….If UAB decides to sever their ties and walk away, what does UAB still have? Well they have a right to own the building that Cooper Green resides in.”

Under the agreement, UAB would have first right of refusal on the property if the county elects to sell it and is no longer in the healthcare business.

Stephens said he’s comfortable with what UAB offers. “The economy of scale. Pick up the expertise. Pick up a new facility. Why wouldn’t we do that?” he said.

Knight and county officials including Henry, the chief finance officer, county attorney and chief deputy county manager all said an authority run by UAB would be best for patient care.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had real control over what happens at Cooper Green and I don’t think we do now,” Knight said. “But we will have a presence on that board and a voice. They are in the business of managing healthcare. We are not. We’ve never been. We haven’t done a good job when we were.”

ABC 33/40 contributed to this post.