by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

One argument that has been offered for keeping the BJC lease of Boone County Hospital is that if the lease is cancelled, information about hospital operations will be available to the public and press via the Missouri Sunshine Law. Operating as a private company, BJC can’t be forced to give information to the press or public about contracts, accounting records, or the hiring practices at Boone Hospital.

It generates more than a little cognitive dissonance when those same trustees who foreshadow bad things happening if the hospital operates under the Sunshine Law tell me in the same breath that Boone Hospital is “my” hospital. That I – and all the other residents of Boone County – own it.

Well, if it is my hospital, why can’t I know what it is doing?

Would embarrassing things get into the press if Boone Hospital were subject to the Sunshine Law? Certainly. We live in a town with one of the largest concentration of journalists in the country, so you can bet mountains of ink will be spilled on any molehill of a story. But as we have seen time and time again, it is not about the story itself but about how our public officials react to it. If they try to cover it up, then things do get embarrassing – and rightly so. If they own up to a problem and correct it, the public really doesn’t care much that a mistake was made. Most people realize mistakes happen. They just want to see them corrected, especially when public money is involved.

To argue it is better to keep your foibles and mistakes covered by the warm blanket of BJC’s corporate charter is insulting to the public “owners” of the hospital. Boone Countians built this hospital for the benefit of Boone Countians, and we are certainly capable of understanding that, in such a complex operation, occasional mistakes might be made.

In contrast, University Hospital operates in the open and has to explain its spending to the public. By and large, the public approves of the expenditures made. Every once in a while, a public debate will ensue about the justification for another helicopter or some other piece of equipment or program. But the public, especially those in the aging baby boomer generation, seems more than willing to spend whatever it takes for health care and rarely questions such expenditures.

Some trustees worry about getting vendors to compete in an open bid process. Under the Sunshine Law, when a contract is awarded, those who didn’t receive the award might be able to request a copy of the contract given to the winning vendor, thereby gaining some competitive knowledge that could be used in the next bid process.

Speaking as someone who has been on the vendor side of this type of arrangement, I can say that while a public bidding process is not always a completely pleasant experience, it does work and is generally a fair method for getting the best price when spending public dollars. It is rarely so unpleasant that vendors refuse to participate.

Right now, there is no such transparency in the procurement process for Boone Hospital. Operations conducted without the benefit of sunshine can lead to all sorts of speculation about why contracts were given to certain vendors.

In fact, it has been my experience that the public bid process often attracts more bidders than a private one, because vendors know it will be a fair process based on price and services delivered. Many vendors shy away from submitting bids to a private company if they believe another vendor has the “in” with the purchasing agent. They might sense it is useless to try to submit an offer, even if it is more competitive.

BJC’s recent counter-offer to continue the lease of Boone Hospital has decreased the momentum for canceling it. Trustees should not, however, use the Sunshine Law as an excuse to continue the lease with BJC.

I am surprised to be in complete agreement with both Fred Parry and Tribune publisher Hank Waters – whom one trustee described as “apoplectic” in his opposition to renewing the lease. But I think they are right. It is time to cancel the lease and bring our hospital back into the sunshine.