Will UMMC become ‘a big ol’ giant’?

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Backers of proposed legislation to loosen procurement rules for University of Mississippi Medical Center say the law could make the hospital more competitive, while some lawmakers wonder whether the bill creates a monster.

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Rep. Jason White, R-West.

Rep. Jason White, R-West, who sponsors the bill, known as the Health Care Collaborative Act, used phrases like “loosening the handcuffs” and “leveling the playing field” when describing how the policy change could help UMMC.

“Being a state agency, UMMC is subject to so many of the laws that other state agencies are,” White said. “This is to give them some flexibility when they do collaborations with other hospitals. It takes the handcuffs (off) that being a state agency puts on them, and (it) treats them like a private institution.”

The bill proposes to shield mergers between the medical center and health providers in the state from federal anti-trust scrutiny. Some legislators voiced concern that the provision might give UMMC a monopoly on healthcare in the state.

During a subcommittee meeting, Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, said he was concerned that loosening regulations could be “creating a monster.”

“I don’t want a big ol’ giant that we can’t control later,” Powell said later.

After the subcommittee meeting, he said he spoke to a representative of a large private hospital in his district, who believes the hospital could benefit from the law.

“Now I do feel more at ease with it as I get into it, but that would be the biggest reservation, that they don’t take this opportunity to expand and run some of our smaller private hospitals off,” Powell said after speaking to the private hospital group.

White said the bill aims to make UMMC competitive with private hospitals in terms of striking partnerships and procuring sophisticated equipment. Currently, UMMC has to go through the same procurement processes other state agencies, unlike private hospitals. White said collaborations often fall apart in the meantime.

“It’s a cumbersome process,” said Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, who is sponsoring mirror legislation in the Senate.

But White stopped short of explaining how the bill would loosen these anti-trust regulations without giving UMMC an advantage over private hospitals.

Under the bill’s current guidelines, any partnership that UMMC strikes would also not be subject to open meeting laws and other “ethics in government laws.”

However, partnerships between private hospitals would not be exempt from federal anti-rust law.

The legislation is modeled on a nearly identical bill passed in Alabama in 2016, which loosened similar restrictions on the medical school at University of Alabama-Birmingham. Alabama’s governor signed that bill into law in April, despite the fact that it met resistance from the Federal Trade Commission, which said it could result in higher prices for consumers.

Other legislators in areas with strong private hospitals questioned whether the bill could be amended to give the same anti-trust protection to private hospitals.

Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg

“On the anti-trust feature, we have been wishing for that ability for a few years now,” said Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg. “I know Forrest General (hospital) has because it helps it expand access to other places. So why are we giving (UMMC) this ability and not helping the other hospitals that have been seeking the same flexibility?

“Can we find a way in this very long train of cars to attach a little caboose that would help our community hospitals?” Barker said.

White said such an amendment could be on the table, which seemed to ease some lawmakers’ concerns.

“I like the concept,” Powell said. “I just want to make sure that the details are there to keep it from getting away from us.”

Harkins said the Senate’s version of the bill would be up for a committee vote on Wednesday or Thursday.