Originally created 04/23/98

School appeals plan to Supreme Court



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The Medical University of South Carolina, challenging a lower-court ruling, wants the state Supreme Court to review its plan to lease three hospitals to Columbia-HCA Healthcare Corp.

The appeal filed last week in Columbia seeks to keep open the option of reviving an agreement with Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia-HCA and to clarify legal questions that may arise if the university ever considers another alliance, lawyer Joe Good said.

The hospital wants to know whether it can transfer and dispose of property, as other universities in South Carolina can; whether laws must state their content in their title to be valid; and whether special legislation was inappropriate in the Columbia-HCA deal.

A decision in the university's favor does not necessarily mean the school will go forward with the lease, university President James B. Edwards said.

"After we know the legal ramifications of joint venturing with someone for profit or not for profit ... the board will make that decision," he said.

Carl Muller, attorney for the Medical Society of South Carolina, a group of about 400 private doctors that sued to stop the deal, said the appeal wastes taxpayers' money.

"This is an absolutely crazy appeal. The deal is illegal and a bad idea, and the people of South Carolina have indicated that," he said.

The medical society, which holds in trust competing Roper Hospital, sued in 1996 on a claim that the university's alliance with Columbia-HCA was an illegal joint venture between a state agency and a private corporation.

Under the agreement, Columbia-HCA would lease three of the university's hospitals for $23 million a year for 20 years or more depending on inflation and profits.

Circuit Judge John Hayes III ruled partially in favor of the society in February. He said legislation approving the deal was unconstitutional because it was not properly titled.

Judge Hayes also said the university did not get proper legislative approval before negotiating with Columbia-HCA and that the Legislature illegally approved "special legislation" to benefit the university and Columbia-HCA when broader legislation would have sufficed.

However, Judge Hayes' ruling does not preclude a private company from operating the university's medical center.

In essence, the ruling said there was nothing wrong with the Columbia-HCA agreement itself, and it dismissed the biggest legal question hanging over the proposal -- whether it was an illegal joint venture between a state agency and a private company.

Judge Hayes ruled there was no evidence to that effect.

University appealAn appeal filed last week in Columbia by the Medical University of South Carolina seeks to keep open the option of reviving a leasing agreement with Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia-HCA and to clarify legal questions that may arise if the university ever considers another alliance.