New Council will decide Memorial’s nonprofit fate

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The uphill battle to turn Memorial Health System into a nonprofit just got steeper.

Old opponents to the idea are still fighting, the Public Employee Retirement Association isn’t budging on the $246 million pension price tag and now there’s the matter of convincing newly elected City Council members to put the issue on the ballot.

And, even though Memorial officials are now crafting a plan to persuade the nine-member City Council, they say their strategy will remain the same.

“The new council doesn’t really change our approach,” said Memorial President and CEO Larry McEvoy. “We still are under the same time frame to get our message out – we have from April to November to thoughtfully craft the ballot language needed.”

Incumbent council members, Jan Martin, Scott Hente and Bernie Herpin are already on board with the nonprofit plan.

The current City Council passed a recommendation this week to put the issue on the November ballot, but new council memers are not bound by that.

McEvoy plans to let the six new council members – Merv Bennett, Val Snider, Brandy Williams, Tim Leigh, Angela Dougan and Lisa Czelatdko – settle in before he starts lobbying them.

Bennett and Snider already said they favor the nonprofit plan. But that Czelatdko, Williams and Dougan are on the fence. Leigh wants the hospital to be privately owned.

When and if the initiative is added to the November ballot, McEvoy will have to stop lobbying for the cause, because state law prohibits municipal employees from discussing election initiatives.

But until then, he’ll to talk to anyone who will listen.

“I just want to tell them: ‘Memorial is the patient; you – and the voters – are the parents. You want all the information you need in order to make the best decision for the patient, ‘” he said.

McEvoy said his intent is to educate and persuade but not to push.

His opponents, however, have no problem pushing.

Outgoing council member Sean Paige, the most vocal opponent to the nonprofit proposal, said he doesn’t plan to sit back and be quiet in his role as a private citizen. He said he isn’t entirely opposed to the nonprofit option, he said

Paige only wishes other options could be considered.

He’s considering trying to place a competing initiative on the November ballot.

He hasn’t decided how that ballot question might be worded, but wants voters to have more options.

“It’s still early,” he said. “But there isn’t only one option. There are many, many permeations to consider.”

Those permeations include selling to a for-profit system or creating a hospital district. He said the city could consider leasing the hospital and retaining employees, ending the PERA debate.

Paige also is asking questions – he wants more information about executive compensation, job growth and the benefits of a potential sale.

Paige also complains about the fact that McEvoy is lobbying about the issue.

“I still think it’s wrong,” he said. “Even if the council doesn’t think so, it is unethical.”

Memorial has used media opportunities, as well as a host of other methods to advance its position.

The hospital spent $16,000 in December 2010 on two full-page newspaper ads and has been using social media to reach the masses, said spokeswoman Cari Davis.

It has not, however, spent money on robocalls or direct-marketing pieces.

Changing the mind of the Public Employee Retirement Association will take more than social media, however. That calls for actuarial acrobatics.

PERA officials announced in March that it would cost millions to leave the pension plan, but Memorial is checking their math, and hoping that lower numbers can be negotiated.

“We are still in the very early stages of talks with PERA, to figure out how they got to that number, and if there’s room for compromise,” McEvoy said. “Once we have our own figures, then it’ll be easier to discuss how to move forward with PERA.”

Either way, McEvoy is looking forward to Paige’s absence from City Council, because he thinks it will ensure a smoother process.

“I don’t think this about ‘push and shove,’” he said. “We want to share all the information. We’re concerned about the direction we’re going to take, about what information we need to give those undecided council members.”