By Roxie Hazard

A while back I asked a member of the Sutter Coast Hospital Board of Directors why local residents were not allowed to attend hospital board meetings. The twofold answer I received was revealing.

First, he told me IRS rules and regulations did not require a nonprofit hospital to allow members of the public to attend their board meetings. And second, corporate strategies (from Sutter Health in Sacramento) are discussed during meetings and that information was not for public consumption.

In my mind, public input could be a good thing. Community members could see who sits on the hospital board and how the board makes healthcare decisions for our community. In turn, the hospital board could have input from local health care consumers (community residents and SCH patients).

I thought surely the board would want, or at least needed to hear, input from community members. How else could they know what changes to enact that would make the “Sutter Experience” even better for the patients they serve?

Over the years, I wrote many letters to the Board of Directors at Sutter Coast Hospital. Letters with questions my friends, neighbors and I had concerning the possible loss of available hospital beds, higher charges to Medicare (with Sutter’s Critical Access plan) and over the top out of network physician charges. I even wanted the board to know it was the great employees that made Sutter Coast possible.

But, sadly, the only response I ever received to all those letters was one auto reply acknowledging the receipt of one letter.

Then last year, I had an opportunity to ask a different member of the board of directors why they never responded to any of the letters I wrote. He answered sheepishly (but I believed honestly) that the hospital board basically did what corporate told them to do.

Hearing that answer, I immediately realized I had always (erroneously) believed the Sutter Coast Hospital Board of Directors represented our local community. It does not. Our local hospital board represents Sutter Health, as they must.

Now I am reading all I can about nonprofits and boards of directors. The duties of a board of directors are set forth in the corporation’s bylaws and directors sit on a board. (Who knew?) I’ve learned that nonprofit board members have three basic primary legal duties: 1) Duty of Care — the prudent use of (facility, people and good will) and oversight for all activities that advance the nonprofit’s effectiveness and sustainability; 2) Duty of loyalty — make decisions in the best interest of the nonprofit not his or her self-interest; and, 3) Duty of Obedience — ensure the nonprofit obeys applicable laws and acts in accordance with ethical practices and adheres to its stated corporate purposes.

Finally, I have one last question for any SCH board member who will answer it: How would inviting members of the public to attend the hospital’s Board meetings violate any of the Sutter Coast (Sutter Health?) corporate bylaws or other legal requirements of a nonprofit board? While I have no expectation of an answer to that question, my hope springs eternal.

Access to quality, affordable health care in our small community is too significant to give up on and, who knows, the hospital’s board of directors’ transparency and public accountability (required or not) could lead to restored trust within our community for the Sutter Coast Hospital I knew and loved years ago.

Roxie Hazard lives in Smith River.