Jefferson County Approves Working With UAB on Health Care Authority Agreement as Opposition Effort Dies

Jefferson County Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Joe Knight 4-18-2019. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

A last-ditch effort by Jefferson County Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson to delay a vote on an authority to govern indigent health care in Jefferson County failed today.

Commissioners Jimmie Stephens, Joe Knight and Steve Ammons voted to approve the resolution to enter a due diligence period with UAB Health System to negotiate an agreement to create a University Healthcare Authority.

Scales and Tyson voted no.

“Today was unfortunate for the poor people, the vulnerable folks of Jefferson County as well as the employees of Jefferson County,” Scales said. “Employees are devastated. Employees feel the county has turned its back on them.

“We should have looked out for our employees. Unfortunately today, we’re taking a gamble at their expense.”

Stephens viewed the action differently.

“It’s going to be a great day for our indigent in Jefferson County,” the commission president said. “They will be able to receive state-of-the-art care from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. And from what I’ve heard today, I’m very much encouraged that our employees will be taken care of in this process also.

“But you have to remember this is about indigent care and improving the quality of indigent care for our citizens,” Stephens continued. “That is always the primary concern.”

Tyson said the work has just begun.

“They said they’re going to make some changes in the framework plan,” she said. “I’m going to fight even harder to see that they make the changes and the adjustments in this authority they just passed. I’m going to make sure it’s fixed right, not only for the patients but for the workers that have invested 30 years on down into the county.”

Scales renewed her efforts to delay the vote on the resolution, saying a bill being considered in the state Legislature would allow Cooper Green employees to remain in the county’s pension system.

While Scales wanted the commission to wait on the passage of that bill, county attorney Theo Lawson said the bill is unneeded.

“I’ve discovered something about 6:30 this morning that would allow us to do that anyway,” he said. “As long as Jefferson County is the payroll agent of those employees, we don’t have to wait to go through the Legislature. We are in negotiations that that would be a part of our due diligence process.”

Scales and Tyson argued that pension status of Cooper Green employees be part of the resolution that was on the agenda today. Ultimately, the commission approved the resolution without that provision.

Tyson also continued to question whether Indigent Care Fund money will follow patients who might seek care at facilities other than Cooper Green or UAB.

Knight said during the meeting that Jefferson County has an opportunity to partner with a world-class medical facility where officials already know how to run a health care system.

“I’ve always campaigned on the fact that we ought to be out of the health care business,” he said, “But I kind of modified that. We ought to be out of the operations of the health care system because we’re going to continue to be involved and take care of the indigent in our county.”

UAB Would Have Controlling Interest

Scales continued to say that the resolution passed today did not establish a partnership.

“The contract stipulates the board makeup is four UAB directors” Scales said of the seven-member board. “We have as the county three directors. Those three directors have to be approved by UAB.

“While they control the money, meaning the indigent care (fund) and how that is appropriated, the bonds that will be issued against this indigent care fund, all of this will be done through an authority that is strictly or primarily run through UAB.”

Some county employees who work at Cooper Green Mercy Health Clinic made their way to the courthouse in Bessemer for the meeting. Knight spoke to them, saying they are the essence of Cooper Green.

“No matter what we do here, and no matter what we do in the back offices, you guys are the ones out there on the front lines that take care of the people. You’re the ones that offer them comfort in their really tough times.”

Following the meeting, county manager Tony Petelos said he and his staff will do everything they can during the due diligence period to help the employees.

“That has always been a concern of mine,” he said. “If we can make this work (to keep employees in the county pension system), we will make it work.”

Petelos said there is no timeframe established for due diligence, noting there are a lot of moving parts.

“During this timeframe, we’ll be doing whatever we can to have a very smooth transition to a health care authority,” the county manager said.

Petelos was asked was asked whether Indigent Care Fund money would be used to pay for care at facilities other than Cooper Green or UAB. He said it would be determined whether that’s the best case.

“Indigent care dollars come to the commission,” Petelos said. “The health care authority will be set up for the day-to-day operations.”