Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Tempers flare on JPS, UNTHSC partnership plan

Plans for an ambitious collaboration between JPS Health Network and the University of North Texas Health Science Center are moving forward, but a discussion of the plan by county commissioners this week was a complete train wreck.

The discussion turned into an open flare-up between County Judge Glen Whitley and Pct. 2 (southeast Tarrant County) Commissioner Andy Nguyen.

Nguyen tried to raise questions about a crucial part of the plan — formation of a joint physicians’ group by the two institutions — but Whitley accused him of “trying to derail the process.”

It all started out nicely enough, with Robert Earley, the president and chief executive officer at JPS, and Michael Williams, president of the Health Science Center scheduled to brief commissioners about progress in forming the collaboration.

The JPS board has approved bylaws for the proposed joint physicians’ group. Earley and Williams say the process will lead to better patient outcomes through streamlining care and sharing resources, and by expanding teaching and research opportunities.

Earley has said JPS currently has contracts with 18 different physicians’ groups.

Boards of the two institutions agreed in June to work on forming a partnership.

But Nguyen had questions during Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting. He insisted, “I am not trying to oppose the project.”

But he said he met briefly with Earley in June and followed up with a list of 13 questions in September.

“It’s no secret that I have concerns,” he said. “I asked questions, and instead of receiving constructive answers, my office received stonewalling.”

Earley said there was no intent to stonewall the commissioner, but “not all the answers are known at this time.”

Nguyen asked about the legalities of the combination, under which JPS and UNTHSC would share governance of the physicians’ group. He clearly was uncomfortable with JPS ceding control, but he said he has not been able to get a formal legal opinion on the matter.

“It’s obvious that these bylaws have not been thoroughly vetted,” Nguyen said. “Then why are we ramrodding this deal through? We have plenty of time to make this right.”

That’s when Whitley joined in. He said Nguyen should have pressed for answers from the district attorney’s office or JPS attorneys.

“Why have you not expressed these concerns and asked these questions several months ago instead of waiting until the point in time where we’re going to delay it?” he asked.

Nguyen repeated that he had tried to raise questions in September.

“I think you are trying to put this on me,” he told Whitley.

“You’re right!” the county judge snapped back. That’s when he accused Nguyen of intentional delay to “derail the process.”

Nguyen said the accusation was “completely uncalled-for.”

Whitley was clearly angry. He told Nguyen to “keep going with your questions.”

Nguyen asked a few more questions and said he had even more to bring up, but he was clearly deflated. He said to continue would be “unconstructive.”

But he told Earley and Williams: “I strongly encourage you to not take my questions … to oppose this partnership, which is far, far from the truth, despite the opinion of a certain someone.”

Whitley snapped quickly, “That would be me.”

And Nguyen: “Yes, sir, that would be you.”

The meeting was a disaster, but with any luck it won’t harm the future of the collaboration between JPS and UNTHSC.

That collaboration seems sure to improve health care in Tarrant County in many ways.

Earley and Williams are two first-rate administrators who no doubt can work out any problems with the arrangement. But they need to get things straight with Commissioner Nguyen.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9