The boardroom at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce last Friday was stuffed with suits. I didn't say stuffed with stuffed suits. Maybe a few of those were there, but this wasn't a gathering of the pretentious. The assemblage was a roll call of the powerful, to be sure, but also the concerned and worried.
Pushed forward by Cousins Properties Chairman Tom Bell, former Georgia-Pacific Chairman Pete Correll, and H.J. Russell & Co. CEO Michael Russell, the Chamber had charged into the breach. Or, more precisely, into the giant financial and political chest wound we call Grady Memorial Hospital.
Mayor Shirley Franklin was about the only potentate who should have been there but wasn't. Grady isn't, technically speaking, a city worry, but Atlanta's already bruised reputation will be bashed into splinters if the hospital implodes from neglect and mismanagement. How do you explain to the world why you're junketing to Italy while Grady – with the only Level One trauma unit between Macon and Chattanooga, a world-class burn unit and the training facility for a quarter of Georgia's doctors – is gasping its death rattle?
The mayor, however, has been on a two-year worldwide victory lap of self-aggrandizement since winning re-election. Dashing off to high-five with the Democratic National Committee is so much more fun than attending to the tedious calamities back home in Atlanta.
Oh, there were some other absentees at the meeting. The people, the masses, the unwashed, the sick, the injured, the poor who actually rely on Grady – they weren't invited. One thing's a sure bet: No one in that boardroom lacked a health insurance card, unlike 1.6 million of their fellow Georgians.
We live in a society that labors under the myth that wealth equals expertise. Peruse files in corporate bankruptcy and foreclosure litigation if you want mountains of evidence that "smart" business minds are quite often diseased with delusion.
But no criticism is due the Chamber. These were good people who scrambled in an 11th-hour effort to save Grady because the rest of the leadership – in the city, the metro area and the state – has been derelict.
"It's been a terrible problem for 20 years," Correll says. Only after the hospital teetered on the precipice of dissolution, and not for the first time, did business leaders reluctantly step up and say, "Here's the bitter medicine we'd prescribe."
How bad is the problem? If Grady were one of its own patients, sad-looking doctors and nurses would be pulling a sheet over the hospital's face as a priest murmured last rites.
It's not just money, although the lack of cash is itself a fatal affliction. We've even had to witness the spectacle of Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority member Bill Loughrey going hat-in-hand to the Cobb County Commission begging for some of the money Grady had spent treating indigent patients from that suburb. Cobb Chairman Sam Olens rebuffed Loughrey, deceitfully sneering that Cobb hospitals also treat people from Fulton.
At least the Chamber meeting got to the bottom of that mendacity. On balance, the net difference of Grady versus those counties that don't contribute to the regional hospital is $16 million a year. Olens should shut up and gratefully start writing checks.
The other vital signs that predict Grady is quickly heading for a flatline: The hospital is in dire need of a quick transfusion of $370 million, plus an annual increase in revenues of about $50 million.
Correll didn't balk at describing the cancer that's far more deadly than even money: race and politics. "This can't be considered as a white takeover of a black institution," he said.
But it will. This is Atlanta, after all.
The core dilemma is that sources of money – whether from banks or a state plan being championed by House Speaker Glenn Richardson (a Republican, by gawd!) – aren't going to deliver until there's a clean sweep of Grady management. The politicized hospital authority is comprised of political midgets appointed by other political midgets on the DeKalb and Fulton commissions.
The counties do contribute $105 million a year to Grady, but their political meddling has become intolerable. It's this authority that has given the community such triumphs as allowing former state Sen. Charles Walker, D-Federal Big House, to loot about $2.5 million from Grady. Or hiring the politically connected Bunnie Jackson-Ransom (Maynard's ex) for $250 an hour for "public relations" (equivalent to spinning the good news about the Titanic going down nose-first). Or paying another consultant, Alvarez & Marsal, $350,000 a month (yes, $12,000 a day) to tell us Grady is bleeding red ink.
The Chamber correctly assessed: To save Grady, it must be wrested away from the two county commissions and their cronies on the hospital board.
But the Chamber, being a gathering of corporate titans, proposed a corporate solution. Its idea would be to create a private nonprofit corporation to run Grady. The old authority would continue owning the real estate but would be emasculated of any power. Correll says that only under such a scenario will financing become available.
That's likely true. But the new nonprofit will be run by a private, self-perpetuating board of the city's business and civic heavy hitters. The public will be relegated to passive spectators, at best.
"The Chamber acts like the Chamber," says Ron Marshall, leader of citizens group the New Grady Coalition. The coalition has been clamoring to be heard for years – without much success because they're just common folks and not corporate honchos. "We need public input before making these changes with Grady, and the Chamber didn't want to hear from the public."
It's cumbersome and messy to appeal to the mob, but that's the best prescription for Grady. A real leader – a visionary mayor, if we could find one – might assemble representatives of all the groups that have a stake in Grady, be they patricians or plebeians. A protracted and inclusive dialogue is urgently required.
As Marshall says, "The Chamber's solutions may well be the best, but unless there is public dialogue, there will be a fatal lack of confidence in what's proposed."
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