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Protestors Criticize WSB-TV Grady Forum

(APN) ATLANTA -- "It's a town hall meeting, but the town isn't invited!" Terence Courtney, director of Atlanta Jobs with Justice, said. "They're running from us. We want a [true] public process."

At first, it seemed the public would get a truly public forum to discuss the Grady Health System crisis, where all sides--policymakers, pro-business elite, and anti-privatization advocates--could convene in one place.

WSB-TV Channel 2--an Atlanta station owned by Cox Communications, which also owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC) and other media outlets--hosted a televised town hall meeting Thursday evening, September 13, 2007.

Many activists thought the meeting would be open to anyone from the public, but word leaked out midweek the Forum was invitation only and indeed it was.

Members of the Grady Coalition delivered a letter to WSB-TV studios in Midtown Atlanta Thursday expressing dismay over the invitation-only affair. At that time, they also learned for the first time Channel 2 had moved the Forum from Grady Hospital to its Midtown studio, but it would still be a non-inclusive gathering.

Atlanta Progressive News obtained an announcement last week about the meeting, which said the Forum was to take place in the atrium at Grady Hospital.

"If we hadn't been there [to protest], I guess we wouldn't have heard," about the move, Courtney said.

Representatives from Channel 2 offered a seat at the meeting to Atlanta Jobs with Justice, but Courtney ultimately gave his seat to activist, Rita Valenti, representative of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1644, as well as Healthcare-NOW, a group seeking single-payer universal health care in the US.

AFSCME Local 1644 is the union that represents Grady employees.

The station invited "local and state leaders, business and community leaders, and ordinary citizens who have officially and unofficially been weighing in on the issue," WSB-TV Vice President and General Manager Bill Hoffman said in a message during the telecast.

About 50 protestors gathered in front of WSB-TV Thursday evening to protest the format.

Chants of "shame, shame, Channel 2" echoed through the neighborhood.

Bert Skellie of the Open Door Community called the Forum a "staged event" and a "televised focus group."

Addis Bey Ababa of the Atlanta chapter of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund called the meeting "a real tragedy."

"We're here to protest Channel 2 because they have locked us out," Dorothy Townsend of AFSCME said. "There needs to be seats for the community."

Out of all the protestors, only seven or eight were allowed inside, including Skellie, State Sen. Vincent Fort, Rev. Timothy McDonald of the First Iconium Baptist Church, and John Evans, former President of the Dekalb County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and director of Operation LEAD. Atlanta Progressive News also received press credentials.

There were indeed many ordinary citizens in the audience, including some who have attended other meetings and rallies that called for more funding and to keep Grady accountable to the public.

Dignitaries included former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners.

Grady CEO Otis Story; the heads of Emory and Morehouse University, Schools of Medicine; and a state representative comprised the dozen or so on stage.

Some audience members complained before going on air that Ron Marshall of the New Grady Coalition, McDonald, and Fort and/or Joe Beasley of Rainbow/PUSH and the Task Force for the Homeless should be on stage because of their work on the Grady issue.

"You're defeating your own cause by protesting," moderator John Pruitt said after one audience member suggested he and others would protest on air if more were not allowed on stage.

"I don't want to disrupt this meeting," Monica Pearson, another moderator said. "It's about principles."

After much noise, the news director allowed Marshall, Fort, and McDonald to share the stage.

Speakers generally agreed that Grady needs more funding and the hospital is crucial to the region and Georgia. The disagreements revolved around which is more important: funding or governance.

"The discussion of governance is really the last discussion," John Maupin, President of the Morehouse School of Medicine, said. "The first discussion is to keep the hospital open. The clock is ticking."

Some leaders and citizens alike have said other counties beside Fulton and DeKalb should pay their fair share to Grady because most every county in the state benefits from Grady in some way, large or small.

But Commissioners on stage were quick to push the funding responsibility to the Georgia General Assembly.

DeKalb County Commissioner Burrell Ellis said the taxpayers of Fulton and DeKalb have paid their share long enough and cannot carry the burden alone forever.

"The State has not fulfilled its responsibility," he said. "Until Georgia gets on board and decides to provide universal access to healthcare for all Georgia citizens, we are going to have problems funding Grady."

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens said the State should do a better job funding all the hospitals in Georgia and expand the number of Level I trauma centers.

"Grady needs money now and we're the only ones who have put money on the table," Fulton County Commission Vice Chairman Bill Edwards said.

"[Grady] is a multimillion dollar asset that I'm not willing to turn over to the business community," he added. "Once we keep the doors open, we can go back and talk about governance."

State Rep. Bob Holmes (D-Fulton County) agreed the State has taken a poor approach. "I think it's long overdue the State step up and make a financial commitment," he said. "The State can do it right now. The best governance in the world can't replace the hard dollars needed to treat this."

Fort suggested the State replace the $60 million it cut out of the Grady system this year and dip into the $600 million surplus the State enjoys.

"Taxpayers from two counties alone cannot be called upon to fund what is clearly a regional or statewide health system," Dr. Christopher Edwards, Grady governing board Vice Chairman, said.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said Grady has funding problems for a number of reasons and no one in particular is to blame.

Eaves argued governance is the main issue and that a nonprofit structure is the best method to solve the problem. Eaves said the current governing board would remain and be responsible for the real estate and $1.6 billion in assets.

A nonprofit board would explore other funding options, he said. Eaves assured that no one is trying to do away with the current governing board and bring in a private, for-profit corporation to operate the hospital.

"I believe in privatization but not for healthcare," Young said. "You've got to have a State mechanism to provide for the least of all God's children."

Grady is not failing but is in fact responsible for the State's budget surplus and this issue is a matter of saving Georgia, Young said.

"We're trying to save Georgia," he said. "We need a commitment to a public health service. If the State doesn't want to say thank you to Grady, then they are the ones who are failing."

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is the Senior Staff Writer of The Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

Revised syndication policy:

Our syndicaton policy was updated June 2007. For more information on how to syndicate Atlanta Progressive News content, please visit: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/extras/syndicate.html


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