AUGUSTA — To Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, most hospitals are no different from the University of Maine System.

Both receive significant public funding. Therefore, Goode says, the public should know how and why that money is spent.

But unlike the UMaine system, hospitals are nonprofit organizations that are shielded from the state’s Freedom of Access law. Board meetings aren’t public. And, for the most part, decisions about capital projects, executive salaries and other spending are made behind closed doors.

Goode wants to change that. For the second straight year, he has submitted legislation that would make hospitals that receive $250,000 a year in public subsidies subject to right-to-know laws.

“Having a concerned citizen go to a meeting and find out what they’re doing with public money is reasonable and something that I think some people will support,” Goode said.

Goode has eight co-sponsors, two are Republicans. Last year, his proposal was supported by some Republican lawmakers before it died in committee. But widespread GOP backing seems highly unlikely this session, particularly now that hospital funding and transparency have become partisan issues.

Republicans, led by Gov. Paul LePage, have repeatedly stressed the state’s need to repay hospitals the debt owed in Medicaid reimbursements. Democrats counter that the state has repaid $2.7 billion in regular weekly payments since 2003 and nearly $1 billion more in debt payments since 2006, cleaning up money owed between 1993 and 2007 when Democrats controlled the Legislature and Blaine House.

Democrats, irked by vocal and frequent complaints from hospital executives about debt payments amid reports that those same executives are approving significant capital projects and receiving raises, have introduced several bills aimed at making hospital operations more transparent. And one, introduced by Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, wants to limit executive salaries to $70,000 — the same salary LePage earns.

The Maine Hospital Association has described some of that legislation as “slap-back proposals,” retribution against hospitals for speaking out about the debt.

Jeffrey Austin, lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, said hospitals were opposed to Goode’s bill. He argued that opening up board meetings could reveal trade secrets and put some institutions at a competitive disadvantage.

“I don’t think we lose our essential private nature because we have significant public funds,” Austin said. “There are ways when we intersect with the public, and that’s the time to hit us with rules and regulations. In exchange for receiving Medicaid payments, they tell us how to operate.”

Austin said extending public oversight beyond Medicaid and into basic hospital functions goes “beyond what should be done.”

Goode said hospitals could use closed-door sessions to discuss sensitive matters such as real estate transactions and personnel issues.

“An institution like the University of Maine seems to follow these same rules,” Goode said. “If that system can follow the rules and be fine with it, then I don’t see why a hospital in a community couldn’t follow the same rules.”

He added, “I think our communities deserve to know more about the hospitals they’re helping subsidize.”

Goode’s bill has been referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. Two of his co-sponsors, Linda Sanbord, D-Gorham, and Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, sit on the panel. Another Democrat, Sen. Margaret Craven of Androscoggin County, co-sponsored his bill last session.

Three of this year’s sponsors — Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, Sanborn and Stuckey — voted against the bill in committee last year.

In addition to hospital and GOP opposition, Goode’s bill could face other obstacles. Last year, the Health and Human Services Committee referred the bill to the Right to Know Advisory Committee to weigh impacts on the state’s FOA law.

The majority of that panel advised against the proposal. The committee argued that state law already requires hospitals to provide some financial and health care costs data to the public. The committee also worried that broadening the state’s FOA law to include hospitals would open the door to include all nonprofits.

However, according to committee testimony from last year, some members of the committee acknowledged that the public has a legitimate interest in nonprofits operating as public-private organizations with public funding.

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