Groups crash meeting about Grady's future

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND OF AUG 11-12 ** University of Georgia Crop and Soil scientist David Radcliffe talks on the banks of the North Fork of the Broad River in Carnsville, Ga., Friday, Aug. 3, 2007. The Scientist are using nuclear fallout to try to determine the source of sediment pollution streaming into rivers. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA - The question of how Grady Memorial Hospital will get through the end of the year remained mired in politics and emotion on Monday with less than four months left before the hospital might close its doors because of a $125 million shortfall.

A meeting called by Grady's governing board - where leaders planned to give a brief status report on how it is working to pay the deficit - was crashed by community activists, doctors, citizens and state and local lawmakers. For more than two hours, many in the crowded room vented their frustrations and fears for the future of the hospital.

"We need to be heard, not somewhere down the line," said Rainbow/PUSH Coalition regional office head Joe Beasley. "We need to be heard now."

On July 13, leaders of a task force charged with figuring out how to save the embattled hospital recommended shifting the governance structure to a nonprofit board of directors, which they said is in line with other major trauma centers in the state and would ease the concerns of would-be donors who have watched as Grady has struggled to stay afloat for decades.

On Monday, auditors charged with reviewing the task force's proposal underscored the gravity of Grady's situation. Over the past decade, indigent care at Grady has doubled, while government funding for the hospital has remained flat. As a result, charity care - which puts no money into Grady's coffers - is expected to exceed patient revenue in 2007.

"If you bring all these factors together, it makes it difficult to run any institution effectively," said Michael Russell, co-chair of the task force.

Rainbow/PUSH presented a three-page memo to the Grady board of trustees seeking more clarity on the advantages of the plan proposed last month by the hospital's task force.

Grady board vice president Dr. Christopher Edwards said the group would ask the Legislature to intervene. Such a move would take responsibility away from Fulton and DeKalb counties, which currently shoulder much of the burden for the hospital, which serves patients throughout the Atlanta area.

The board also recommended establishing a regional authority to ensure funding from across several counties, promoting equity and security for possible donors.

Grady is losing $8 million per month, and even if it does pull out of debt this year, it will take at least $40 million per year to continue operating. This is because the hospital caters to a largely poor and uninsured population and treats the most critically injured individuals.

The hospital has been vital to the state's health, employing more than 5,000 people and seeing more than one million patients each year - 93 percent of whom are not privately insured and 75 percent of whom are on Medicaid. One out of every four doctors practicing in Georgia was trained at Grady.

DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones spoke briefly at the meeting about the need for a solution.

"The task force has been studying Grady for 90 days, but some of us have been studying Grady for years," said Mr. Jones, who dealt with Grady's funding crises as a state legislator. "Grady's problems come down to the bottom line. A nonprofit board cannot come up with $125 million."

Mr. Jones proposed calling a special legislative session to handle the issue before the end of the year. Otherwise, the issue could not be taken up before January and would likely take most of the session to sort out, said lawmakers present at the meeting.