Texas teaching hospital loses latest legal bid to keep public records concealed

Even by the standards of opaque government agencies, Dallas’ Parkland Hospital is in a class by itself. The teaching hospital, affiliated with the University of Texas-Southwestern, routinely responds to information requests from the news media by preemptively filing lawsuits.

Secrecy can be an expensive hobby, as evidenced by a June 7 ruling from Dallas County District Judge Paul Davis.

Judge Davis ordered the taxpayer-subsidized hospital to comply fully with a 2010 freedom-of-information request from The Dallas Morning News, and to pay $4,300 to cover what Attorney General Greg Abbott has spent responding to Parkland’s lawsuit.

The hospital likely will owe much more to the Morning News for the newspaper’s two-year-long legal battle. And — in a warning shot cautioning the hospital against continuing to resist disclosure — the judge took the unusual step of pre-approving another $11,300 in legal fees for the AG’s office should Parkland appeal.

The newspaper sought records pertaining to Parkland’s conclusion that it overcharged Medicare and Medicaid anywhere from $30 million to $50 million for patient care. Parkland produced some documents, but insisted that the rest were exempt from the Texas Freedom of Information Act.

In Texas, the attorney general can issue rulings interpreting the scope of the state open-records act. When the AG tells government agencies that their refusal to release records is unsupported by state law, they normally stop resisting and comply.

Not Parkland. It sued Attorney General Abbott (and not for the last time).

Unless appealed, Judge Davis’ ruling ends this round of public-records tug-of-war with the Morning News, which has exhaustively documented shortcomings in patient safety and financial management at Parkland.

A three-month study by outside consultants completed in February found widespread and persistent problems with patient care even after Parkland had been put on notice that its eligibility for life-sustaining Medicare and Medicaid funding was on the line. (Oh, and the hospital hid those findings, too — it took a request to the hospital’s federal oversight agency to get a copy of the report that Parkland had promised to release but didn’t.)

With life-and-death deficiencies to address, excessive public disclosure would hardly appear to register as a priority.