Ga. Supreme Court affirms government transparency laws apply to Northside Hospital

Fulton County’s Northside Hospital is subject to the state’s Open Records Act, according to a Nov. 2 opinion from the Georgia Supreme Court that sends the case back to the trial court.

Northside Hospital’s Atlanta campus

The justices made clear that the private, nonprofit hospital does its work “on behalf of” the governmental authority that created it in 1991 — making it accountable to the public.

If Northside seeks to shield records from public disclosure, the burden will now be on the hospital to prove that the records do not relate to that mission. The justices directed the trial court to make that determination for the particular financial records requested in the case.

“The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is delighted that the Georgia Supreme Court followed precedent and held that Northside Hospital is bound by the principles of open government transparency,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation board member Richard T. Griffiths. “Transparency is the best way to maintain accountability to the taxpayers for whom Northside was founded — who paid for it and still effectively own it.

“Northside is a $2 billion-a-year institution in Fulton County,” Griffiths said. “Citizens need to be able to fully understand what’s happening with its operations and monitor whether it continues to focus on ‘the public health needs of the community,’ as was mandated by the authority’s resolution that created Northside Hospital.”

The Court also raised additional questions about Northside Hospital’s claim that “nothing it does is for or on behalf of the Authority.”

“Completely apart from the requirements of the Hospital Authorities Law, any suggestion that a lease of an exceptionally valuable hospital and related assets for minimal rent and the promise to operate the hospital wholly for its own purposes renders Northside simply an ordinary tenant might well raise constitutional questions,” the justices stated in Thursday’s opinion.

“We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation believe government agencies should not able to spin off private entities — just as the Fulton County Hospital Authority did in creating Northside — so that they can avoid public records scrutiny,” Griffiths said.  “For this reason, we are delighted by the clear language of the Georgia Supreme Court decision.”

Read more about the Northside case, including a brief history of the fight for transparency into the operations of public hospital authorities.

 Check out media coverage of the Georgia Supreme Court decision: 

For more information contact John McCosh at mccosh3@comcast.net