News groups ask for openness in hospital lawsuit

From the Associated Press

By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A coalition of news organizations has filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit between two major health care providers in Idaho in an effort to open court proceedings to the public and the press.

The Idaho Statesman, The Times-News in Twin Falls, The Associated Press, the Idaho Press-Tribune and the Idaho Press Club filed the motion to intervene on Tuesday, asking U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to reverse a pretrial order he issued allowing the closure of the courtroom for some testimony and to keep the proceedings open to the public.

The case pits the Idaho attorney general’s office, the Federal Trade Commission and Saint Alphonsus Health System against St. Luke’s Health System and its quest to purchase the Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group.

St. Luke’s says growth and consolidation will result in better health care at lower cost, but Saint Alphonsus, Treasure Valley Hospital and state and FTC attorneys want to stop the acquisition because they say it gives St. Luke’s an unfair share of the market and lead to higher prices for consumers.

The trial began last week, and much of the testimony and proceedings have been closed to the public, purportedly to protect the trade secrets of the parties involved.

The attorney for the news organizations, Charles Brown, said in court documents that the public has a right to know what is going on behind closed courtroom doors in part because Idaho residents will be impacted by the outcome of the case.

“Drawing a curtain of secrecy behind which the parties in this matter can operate simply does not comport with the requirements of the First Amendment nor Ninth Circuit case law as to the openness required of our judicial system but also the openness required of our government,” Brown wrote.

In a ruling issued before the trial began, the judge said that the press and public have a “presumptive right of access,” but that right may give way if the parties involved make a convincing showing that the testimony or document contains sources of business information that could harm a litigant’s competitive standing.

But Brown and the news organizations contend that the attorneys have been allowed to decide on their own whether they have a compelling reason to keep parts of the testimony and evidence secret.

“The parties in this lawsuit are using the umbrella of sensitive trade secrets, negotiating strategies, bargaining power evaluations, reimbursement policies, pricing and future plans to avoid revealing what they don’t want to be revealed. Where does the interest of the medical consumer enter into this equation?” Brown asked the judge in his filing.

Brown noted that the judge appeared to rely on case law created in the criminal case against former President Richard Nixon’s advisers after the Watergate scandal. But the facts of that case, Brown argues, were significantly different than the issues in the current litigation, and even then, the press and public had greater access.

“The doors of the courtroom were not closed to the public nor the press even when the President’s former advisers were charged with criminal conspiracy,” Brown wrote in his motion. “The Nixon case only involved access to the tapes and the scope and breadth of that access after they were admitted into evidence.”

The public has a right to know the details of the case, especially given that the plaintiffs say St. Luke’s actions would increase health care costs and reduce health care quality in Idaho, Brown maintained

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

From the Associated Press

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