A frightening process on Jones Street

A frightening process on Jones Street

- in Fitzsimon File

You would think that an ideological move by some conservative state lawmakers to overhaul a major health care system in North Carolina run by the flagship university would command a serious discussion and a transparent legislative process.

Not in this General Assembly.

A House study committee voted for legislation Tuesday that would change the governance of the UNC Health Care System and even require legislative approval of business transactions.

The vote came after committee members admitted they didn’t know what they were voting on.

The confusion was not a surprise. When the House Committee on State-Owned Assets convened, members of the panel expected to consider the sale of some state assets.

But as WRAL-TV reported, instead they received a nine-page bill that most committee members had not previously seen that begins by restating the mission of UNC Health Care, changing it from patient care and research to a primary focus on training doctors.

The bill goes on to reduce the reduce the size of the health system’s board and transfer much of its power to the UNC Board of Governors whose members are elected directly by the House and Senate. That’s probably just a coincidence.

The proposed legislation would also force UNC Health Care officials to actually get lawmakers to approve most business transactions, turning members of the House and Senate into health care administrators and managers.

The bizarre committee meeting and vote on the surprise legislation comes amid an increasingly bitter dispute between UNC Health Care and WakeMed in Raleigh about the Wake County health care market.

UNC owns Rex Hospital in Raleigh and WakeMed leaders have long complained that UNC has a built in advantage being part of a state institution. The two sides have traded allegations about the other’s role in providing indigent care.

The nine-page treatise orders UNC to provide specific levels of indigent care in the counties in which it operates.

WakeMed’s board has even offered to buy Rex Hospital in Raleigh from UNC Health Care, an offer which UNC has refused.

Legislation to force UNC to make the sale was offered in the committee, but never considered.But the nine-page bill would be the next best thing for WakeMed by micromanaging UNC Health Care, a prospect that the leaders of WakeMed clearly relish.

It would also repeal much of the flexibility given to UNC in 1999 to make it easier for the system to operate.

UNC officials released a statement after the committee vote, saying the bill would “eliminate our ability to care for the uninsured, limit our ability to compete for research dollars to find better treatments and cures, and make it more difficult to train the doctors and health care workers we need for the future.”

Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca wasn’t too happy either, and seemed to indicate that it would never see the light of day in the Senate.

The statement from UNC Health Care also said that “every citizen of North Carolina should be frightened by this bill.”

True enough. And they also ought to be frightened by the way the committee considered it and approved it.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.