ATLANTA - Over the objections of open-government advocates, the House passed a bill Monday that would allow the nonprofit organization in charge of the hospital and clinics at Medical College of Georgia to keep some records and meetings private.
But before approving the legislation 138-25, lawmakers agreed to an amendment that could substantially curtail the measure's impact.
The bill would exempt the governing board of MCG Health Inc. from state open-records and open-meetings requirements if disclosure of information contained in those records or discussed at those meetings could put the company at a competitive disadvantage.
MCG Health met in a closed session last month to discuss and approve a business plan for the MCG Neuroscience Center of Excellence. And it had the right to do so, just as University Hospital and others across the state do, said David Hudson, attorney for MCG Health and The Augusta Chronicle.
The problem is that an exemption in the current state law specifically mentions only hospital authorities, and, technically, MCG Health is not a hospital authority, Mr. Hudson said. MCG Health requested the change in case anyone challenges its right to meet in closed session to safeguard sensitive strategy and competitively valuable information, Mr. Hudson said.
"It's best to resolve any ambiguities," he said.
But Rep. Tracy Stallings, D-Carrollton, argued Monday that the General Assembly shouldn't approve anything that restricts the "free flow of information" to Georgians about important state institutions.
Mr. Stallings, a member of the University System of Georgia Committee, complained that mismanagement at MCG in recent years has cost Georgia taxpayers.
Specifically, he cited errors by a consultant last year that substantially underestimated the costs of MCG's early retirement program and the guilty pleas of former MCG researchers Richard Borison and Bruce Diamond in 1998 in defrauding the college of between $10 million and $11.5 million.
"This bill would provide cover for them for whatever happens in the future," Mr. Stallings said. "We need to know more, not less, about what's going on over there."
The House approved an amendment proposed by Mr. Stallings that would allow MCG Health to keep documents and meetings private only if the information withheld does not involve state tax dollars.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Jack Connell, D-Augusta, the bill's chief sponsor, said he will examine the potential effects of the amendment before it's taken up in the Senate. If he finds the change would seriously affect the bill's intent, he said he would ask senators to remove the amendment.
Staff writer Tom Corwin contributed to this article.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.