The Buzz: News&Guide takes action against hospital CEO

By on April 1, 2009

By Ben Cannon

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-A pair of Jackson Hole News&Guide editors has taken legal action against the CEO of St. John’s Medical Center, alleging he has repeatedly ignored a reporter’s requests for surgery data that they say is public record.

Co-editors Angus Thuermer and Thomas Dewell filed a complaint last week in Ninth District Court against hospital CEO Jim Schuessler, simultaneously petitioning to inspect “the numbers and types of surgeries performed at the Medical Center in each of the last three years,” according to a copy of the complaint filed in District Court.

The lawsuit cites sections of the Wyoming Public Records Act as legal basis for public access to records from the public hospital. “Patient names found in such data could be redacted to protect privacy,” the document states.

Alternatively, the lawsuit seeks the court to order Schuessler “to show cause why he should not permit inspection of the record.”

Reached for comment, Thuermer said the News&Guide had no other recourse but to pursue legal action.

“We asked for records, and we have been denied for six weeks,” he said.
In early March, News&Guide reporter Traci Angel, who covers the health beat for that paper, wrote a letter to Schuessler requesting a conclusive list of the number and kinds surgeries performed at St. John’s from 2006 to 2008. The letter is on file as evidence in the complaint.

“If you try to deny the request, then you are required to respond in writing and state the statutory exception authorizing the withholding of all or part of the public record,” states Angel’s letter, which appeared also to have been sent to St. John’s attorneys and a hospital spokesperson.

But, according to the lawsuit, Angel received no response after more than two weeks and she and her editors “interpret such silence as a denial of the request.”
A call by Planet JH to Schuessler was returned by hospital spokesperson Karen Connelly, who said hospital administrators have moved slowly on the surgery data request in order to avoid breaking the federal HIPAA rules that protect patient confidentiality.

“I believe a list of procedures at St. John’s is something of interest to the community at large and is something we should be comfortable releasing,” Connelly said in an interview Monday. “We had some initial concern about the nexus of the request – various questions related to the care a patient received.”

While Connelly declined to confirm a connection between the lawsuit and the News&Guide’s investigation into a patient death, her reply mirrored rhetoric the paper attributed to Schuessler in a previous story.

In a Feb. 11 News&Guide article on the death of Cheryl McCoul, the 51-year-old Buffalo woman who died following complications reportedly stemming from a spinal fusion procedure performed at St. John’s, the paper reported that Schuessler would not answer certain questions about general hospital data because, he said, it became contextualized around the reporter’s initial questions about McCoul’s death, which could violate patient confidentiality.

The information sought in the lawsuit – a list of all surgeries performed in 2006, 2007, and 2008 – does not appear to include data about McCoul’s operation, which reportedly occurred in January 2009.

What the News&Guide will do with that information is still unclear.
“The request is for the number and type of surgeries,” Thuermer said. “I’m not sure it is related to anything but the number and type of surgeries.”

Connelly said hospital administrators are working to develop a new policy to handle public information requests that, in recent months, “have become more complex.”
A call to hospital board president Emmy Knobloch Tuesday was not returned by press time. PJH

Additional reporting by Matthew Irwin.

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