MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- University Health Associates is not a private practice for physicians but instead qualifies as a public agency under West Virginia law because of its "symbiotic relationship" with WVU Hospitals, a judge says. That means its records are subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act.
The decision in Monongalia Circuit Court is a victory for Mon General Hospital, a competitor that sued UHA last summer in an unsuccessful bid to stop the relocation of WVU Urgent Care in Morgantown. Among other things, Mon General demanded access to UHA's books to help justify its objections to the state Health Care Authority.
Mon General President Darryl Duncan said Tuesday he was pleased with the ruling and suggested it may affect other cases involving West Virginia University Medical Corp., which does business as UHA.
It's the second time the circuit court has reached this conclusion, Duncan said, "and we felt the facts were always there to support this decision."
Mon General has long argued that UHA and WVU Medical Corp. are subject to the FOIA because UHA is the clinical practice arm for WVU physicians, controlled directly by WVU Hospitals and West Virginia United Health Systems.
WVU Medical Corp. and UHA issued a statement saying they intend to appeal the ruling.
"We respectfully believe that it is in error," said spokeswoman Amy Johns.
But Circuit Judge Phillip Gaujot said his decision complies with West Virginia's "resounding public policy" of having a citizenry informed about the affairs of its government.
"The FOIA itself is a unique mechanism to remove the shroud of secrecy that can sometimes cloud governmental affairs, particularly adverse to accountability to the populace," he wrote. "The FOIA is meant to empower the citizenry with perhaps its greatest tool, and that is knowledge."
Gaujot's order was entered last week, but Mon General made it public Tuesday. It also denies a motion to dismiss the underlying lawsuit filed last summer.
Duncan has denied his objective was to stop the relocation of Urgent Care, which took place in June.