I saw trouble coming when Maralyn Mosley called the GOP JeffCo commissioners who favored closing Cooper Green Mercy Hospital “cowards” and refused to be silent. When asked to leave the chambers and sheriff’s deputies surrounded her, she shouted, “If you want me out, you’ll have to carry me out! I’m not gonna leave these cowards in here!”
But I knew the war was on when Rev. Tommy Lewis, who earlier tried to calm Ms. Mosley and supporters who started singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” came out of the commission’s back chamber, where he and other civic leaders apparently tried to reason with the GOP commissioners. He waved his hand in the air, exclaiming that the commissioners wouldn’t act in good faith to reconsider their vote to end Cooper Green’s in-patient services.
Then Lewis – all 6-foot-8 of him – turned toward Commissioner Joe Knight and, looking down, wagged his finger in Knight’s face and practically shouted, “Either you take this back to committee (for further discussion), or we’re all going to jail!” It’s only the beginning, he said later.
Thus the commission debate over Cooper Green Mercy Hospital – which provides medical services to the county’s poor, uninsured and underinsured residents – turned into a full-blown civil rights protest.
How did it come to this?
For one thing, Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, who led the charge with Commission President David Carrington and Knight, brought this wrath down on their heads. The commissioners refused to step back from the brink and allow further discussion about Cooper Green’s future.
Commissioners Sandra Little Brown and George Bowman took the three to task for pushing such an emotional, controversial decision without community input.
While Brown admitted that the county hospital has been a longstanding financial burden, its problems didn’t just start overnight. And so, she said, its solutions can’t be fixed with a single, hurried vote. The three apparently had no plan detailing how the indigent care tax dollars that support Cooper Green would be spent to care for its patients at other hospitals.
She said Knight had compared the three’s plan-lessness to President Kennedy’s announcing that the U.S. would put a man on the moon, though he had no plan to do so. “The speech that my colleague alluded to was given on May 25, 1961, and Kennedy’s deadline was at the end of the decade – not 30 days,” she said.
Bowman, who oversees Cooper Green, complained that the three hadn’t consulted with local hospitals and medical associations when they decided last week (without his knowledge) to end its in-patient services in 30 days.
None of the local medical facilities could handle care for new, poor patients on such short notice, he said, calling the move “unsafe and unethical.” And Cooper Green’s patients and workers were thrown into an uproar over an uncertain future because the three had “capriciously” set a 30-day deadline. “That’s callous, that’s cold, that’s non-caring,” Bowman said.
He also referenced a new report showing the millions of revenue dollars the county would lose and millions in new expenses it would incur – including a spike in the cost of medicines and loss of federal funding for successful programs – if Cooper Green’s hospital went away.
Brown’s and Bowman’s protests came despite Stephens’ revised proposal, which they also had not seen. It called for broad community input to create a plan and set a hospital-closing deadline for no later than Dec. 1. Knight said he was tired of “kicking the can down the road” and was ready to tackle the financial drain Cooper Green was on the now-bankrupt county coffers.
Cooper Green supporters pleaded for more time to have a greater say in what would happen to the people who use its services. But when the three pressed forward to vote on the revised proposal over all objections, the civil rights era protesting started in earnest – with songs, chants and prayers.
And that’s pretty much when the meeting stopped. The commissioners had lost control and looked confused in the face of such resistance.
For Ms. Mosley, who chairs Cooper Green’s advisory board, and the people who depend on the county hospital for medical services they believe they cannot get elsewhere, the fight is a literal life-or-death struggle. It should come as no surprise that they and civic leaders like Rev. Lewis were willing to face jail for civil disobedience, as many of them did 50 years ago.
The GOP commissioners greatly underestimated community backlash. They were deluded to think that a simple majority vote to force the hospital’s closure and solve a long-standing financial problem would be, well, simple.
Finally, I’m constantly amazed at how short people’s memories are and their failure to understand history.
When I was a reporter covering the county commission almost 15 years ago, former Commissioner Gary White was frustrated by his GOP colleagues’ attempts to force the Cooper Green issue then. What they too failed to remember, he said, was that the county at one time did close the hospital. The commission then sent Cooper Green’s indigent care money to local hospitals, which pledged to cover the extra cost of treating the poor with it. The experiment failed, and the county went back into the hospital business.
Healthcare, after all, is a business. And people who can’t afford the astronomically rising costs of health services and medications just don’t feed the capitalistic beast as well as people who have good insurance.
Cooper Green’s CEO Dr. Sandral Hullett readily admits the hospital lives outside its current means. In part, she’s hampered by personnel rules from making some of the necessary staffing cuts so that Cooper Green can live within its budget. But she has made progress, as even the GOP commissioners acknowledged. And she has generated revenues, which don’t always make it back to the hospital because its money gets mixed into the county’s general fund.
The county should support a new healthcare authority to better manage indigent care tax dollars; currently, about $42 million goes to Cooper Green. We don’t need any more costly studies and consultants to tell us what our own local experts should be able to figure out after all these years.
Yes, greed and egos are at work here. Motivations have to be checked. Area hospitals would love to park those millions in their own accounts. Changes in federal healthcare laws could bring more money, but also a flood of poorer and sicker patients who would have access to Medicaid. Solving this issue will be challenging.
But it has to be done. The GOP commissioners have at least forced the issue, again. And now is the time to make the decisions everyone knows need to be made. Given today’s uncertain economy, more of us could find ourselves in need. So we can never afford to forget that the indigent care fund is for Jefferson County residents who need medical help the most.
If that happens to slip our minds again, I’m sure Ms. Mosley and those in our community who take up for “the least of these” will be there to remind us all just how powerful the poor can be.
Photos courtesy of Marika N. Johnson.