Three county commissioners sit in on Atrium Health board meeting; ‘the public meeting didn’t seem very public’

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By Michelle Crouch

Three Mecklenburg County commissioners attended the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority board meeting on Tuesday after reading a Ledger/NC Health News article this week — and all said afterward that it bothers them that the public board doesn’t give the public a chance to speak. 

Commissioners Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, Elaine Powell and Laura Meier also said they would like to have more input in approving appointees to the board, which governs Atrium Health, the $9.3 billion system that’s also a government entity. 

The Ledger/NC Health News article highlighted the benefits the hospital system enjoys as a local unit of government, including the power of eminent domain and antitrust immunity. The hospital authority is a public body bound by the state’s open meeting and public records laws, but critics say it operates more like a private corporation.

At the two-hour meeting, the board never discussed working with RIP Medical Debt, a charity that buys debt from hospitals and forgives it. A local physician has been trying to talk to the board about working with the organization, as The Ledger/NC Health News reported in December.

The county commissioners were seated at the back of the room with a Ledger/NC Health News reporter and two members of the public. No agenda was offered, but Powell said it was emailed to her after the meeting. The county commissioners were not recognized when other guests were introduced.

As usual, Tuesday’s meeting was polite and scripted. PowerPoint presentations covered topics including a minimum wage increase for Atrium workers, the hospital system’s school-based virtual therapy program and ambitious expansion plans, all of which had been previously announced.

At the meeting, the authority board voted to raise prices 3.7 percent in 2024, despite 2023 revenues of $9.3 billion – about 15 percent more than what they had budgeted. In all, the authority had operating profit of $452 million in 2023, according to a board report. 

After the meeting, commissioner Powell said, “The public meeting didn’t seem very public. It was really like watching a show.”  

North Carolina law does not require hospital authorities to set aside a portion of their meetings for public comment.

The law also says the chair of the local board of commissioners, George Dunlap, must appoint authority board members from a hospital-nominated slate of candidates. The chair may require the hospital “to submit as many additional lists of nominees as he or she may desire,” the statute says. 

Rodriguez-McDowell said she has “conflicting feelings” about Atrium after reading The Ledger/NC Health News article and sitting in on the meeting.

“They talk about how much they are spending in the community and all the free care they are giving,” she said. “I have trouble reconciling that with the experiences of my constituents, and with their huge salaries and the millions that (Atrium) makes.” 

Meier said she was disappointed the board did not discuss whether to work with RIP Medical Debt. 

Atrium previously emailed a statement that said the hospital would not sell its debt to RIP, because it already has a generous financial assistance program. Atrium also said that the community would be better served by directing one-time funds toward other programs. Last week, Meier and Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera called for the full hospital board to discuss working with the charity. 

In a presentation at the meeting, Kinneil Coltman, chief community and social impact officer, told the board that Atrium made “significant enhancements” to its financial assistance program in 2023. She described it as “absolutely the most generous financial assistance program in North Carolina.”

At the end of the meeting, The Ledger/NC Health News asked Board Chair Angelique Vincent if she had any response to the Ledger/NC Health News article. 

“I think we covered a lot of that in the meeting,” she said.  

When asked about whether she had considered putting RIP Medical Debt on the agenda, she told the reporter to call Atrium’s media relations department.

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