Judge approves Singing River Health System pension settlement

Judge approves Singing River Health System pension settlement

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Singing River Health System's pension settlement received approval from U.S. District Court Judge Louis Guirola Friday.

"After receiving the supplemental evidence, testimony, and argument presented, the Court is convinced that the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, and the settlement should be approved as soon as possible," Judge Guirola wrote.

Attorney for Singing River Jim Reeves helped negotiate the settlement.

"This is a settlement that is critical to the survival of this pension plan," Reeves said. "Without it it's undisputed that it's going to run out of money in six to seven years."

According to Reeves, if the settlement is agreed to, the hospital can start making installments to pay the $156 million agreed to fund the pensions over the next 35 years.

Experts say that should fully compensate the plan for the missed contributions from 2009 through 2014.

Harvey Barton, attorney for 200 of the retirees, isn't accepting the ruling and plans to appeal.

"This battle is not over," Barton said.  "This settlement cannot last for the lifetime of all these beneficiaries, it's not designed to do that. The settlement is inadequate."

However, Reeves said the longer the legal process plays out the more money the pension plan will lose. "Appeals have cost the pension plan at this point millions of dollars because money that would have been paid in this settlement can't be invested, it's held in escrow until all the appeals are exhausted," said Reeves.

Regardless of the appeal process, Barton is working to take the case to the Supreme Court.

"If the Supreme Court will go ahead and take jurisdiction of this case all of this stuff is going to come to a screeching halt," Barton said.

Jackson County agreed to pay a total of $13,600,000 to SRHS "[t]o support the indigent care and principally to prevent default on a bond issue by supporting the operations of SRHS" in nine installments beginning as soon as the settlement is approved, and ending on September 30, 2024.

"The parties agreed that Jackson County would be entitled to a release as a result of its contribution to the settlement," Judge Guirola wrote.

As an incentive award, Singing River has also agreed to pay $12,500, to be divided among the named plaintiffs to the Jones, Cobb, and Lowe federal lawsuits as well as the plaintiffs in two state court lawsuits.

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.

"The objectors have been given their full and fair 'day in court.' In the opinion of the Court, the parties have demonstrated that the best means of protecting the Plan, the class, and the future financial stability of SRHS is to approve the settlement."

Singing River Health System issued an official statement on the matter:

"As the court noted, the settlement is the best available option to salvage the retirement plan and secure the continued viability of the health system.

Read the full settlement order here: http://bit.ly/2DBtqNx

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