CHARLESTON – Any citizen may observe meetings of the medical staff executive committee at Charleston Area Medical Center, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously ruled March 1.
The Justices overturned Kanawha County Circuit Judge James Stucky, who ruled last year that the doctors did not have to open their meetings to the public.
Stucky held that the Open Hospital Proceedings Act of 1982 applied to the medical center's board of trustees but not to the medical staff executive committee.
Justice Larry Starcher rejected that logic, writing that the trustees routinely approve recommendations of the executive committee on a wide range of issues.
"All or almost all of the substantive discussion, debate, deliberation, and decision making regarding these issues takes place at the meetings of the MSEC, and not at Board of Trustees meetings," Starcher wrote.
Physician R. E. Hamrick sued in 2005 to open the committee's meetings.
In a separate Kanawha County suit, Hamrick seeks to reverse his termination from the hospital staff.
The Open Hospital Proceedings Act declares that in the best interest of the people, directors of nonprofit and government hospitals should conduct proceedings in an open and public manner. The act also applies to "other governing bodies of such hospitals."
In a 1999 amendment, legislators defined a governing body as "the board of directors or other group of persons having the authority to make decisions for or recommendations on policy or administration."
"The statute may be quite reasonably read to include the possibility that another group, in addition to a hospital's board of directors, may function as a 'governing body,'" Starcher wrote.
He wrote that a common sense approach would focus on whether excluding the public would undermine the act's fundamental purposes.
"The stated purpose of the Hospital Act is to ensure that the public may observe in a meaningful fashion the decision making processes of nonprofit hospitals," Starcher wrote.
He wrote that when in doubt, courts should err on the side of openness.
CAMC's medical staff includes more than 600 doctors. The center's bylaws provide for a medical staff executive committee.
The committee has 19 members, including the chief of each department.
Karen Miller, Mark Weiler and Richard Walters of Charleston represented Hamrick.
James Crockett Jr., of Charleston, represented the medical center.