SRHS pension hearing dissects hospital finances

SRHS pension hearing dissects hospital finances

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Monday's federal court hearing about the future of the Singing River Health System pension settlement was a tedious day of testimony focused on numbers. About 40 SRHS retirees and a handful of current hospital employees listened along with U.S. District Court Judge Louis Guirola as an accountant answered questions about the finances of SRHS and whether it could pay a $150 million settlement plan.

Accountant Allen Carroll spent three hours testifying about his review of the health system's financial state. Carroll said based on internal audits, SRHS could meet its obligation under the settlement plan to pay the $150 million in installments, as agreed upon in the settlement deal. Carroll was hired by Jim Reeves and Matthew Mestayer, the attorneys who negotiated the settlement agreement for the troubled pension plan.

Attorney Harvey Barton, who along with Earl Denham represent some 200 retirees fighting the settlement, questioned Carroll's assessment of SHRS finances. Barton told the court that the health system is in better shape than it claims to be. He said while SRHS claimed it was losing money in 2014, it stopped paying $7 million into the retirement fund as it claimed on its financial statements.

Barton began the day by asking for a continuance, telling the judge SRHS just made certain documents available on Friday and he and Denham needed more time to review them. Judge Guirola denied that motion. Barton challenged the number of participants in the retirement plan, saying the number is closer to 3,000 than the 1,900 he said the hospital counts.

Last week, the special fiduciary overseeing SRHS finances issued a report that said the pension plan could be broke by 2025, leaving current and future retirees with nothing. The report said the embattled pension fund is currently paying benefits to 725 people, but more than 2,000  plus are eligible for benefits or repayments in the future. The report was written by Traci Christian who took the stand in the hearing after lunch Monday.

Read the full report from Special Fiduciary Traci Christian:

In 2014, SRHS froze the employee pension plan. The legal battle that ensued has pitted retirees against their longtime employer to ensure they are paid the money they expected would carry them through retirement. The settlement plan reached in 2016 was appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the settlement case back to the lower court to clarify some points. That order led to the hearing before Judge Guirola.

Kelly Sessoms, Legal Counsel for Singing River Health System, released the following statement Monday evening:

"At today's fairness hearing, the lead counsel for the proposed class action settlement addressed the appeals court's questions and Singing River demonstrated the system's ability to support and sustain payments into the plan for the long term.   
In addition to future payments, the settlement provides new protections for the plan with oversight by the chancery courts including a special fiduciary to manage the plan.  Traci Christian, the court-appointed Special Fiduciary, noted that the proposed settlement is likely the best option for both current and future pension participants to receive some payments under the plan, preventing the fund's depletion by 2025 based on its current trajectory.
Singing River Health System is hopeful for a final resolution to this issue so that they can move forward and focus on their mission of improving health and saving lives."

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