— BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Commissioners in bankrupt Jefferson County delayed a decision on whether to close a public hospital serving the poor Tuesday after protesters shouting and singing old civil-rights anthems interrupted their meeting.
Commission President David Carrington recessed the meeting indefinitely after chaos erupted in the packed commission chamber before members could vote on the proposal to shutter Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.
"Sometimes it's best to take a nap," he said afterward.
Demonstrators said they would return for more protests the next time commissioners gather to discuss the future of Cooper Green, described as the only charity hospital of its kind in Alabama.
The hospital cost the county operating budget about $14 million this fiscal year and is projected to need another $6 million infusion this coming year, Carrington said, yet its staff of 528 employees has cared for an average of only 34 patients a night over the past three months.
Faced with both a record bankruptcy over $4 billion in debt and a separate shortfall in its operating budget, the county can no longer afford to subsidize the hospital, said commission members who support the shutdown.
"We can either get stuck in the past or move forward," said Commissioner Joe Knight, who backed a vote to close the hospital.
The meeting erupted into shouting and singing after Knight spoke, with opponents of the move singing "Ain't Nobody Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" and Cooper Green patient Maralyn Mosley shouting at commissioners from her seat in the chamber.
Mosley got louder as deputies approached to escort her outside. "I'm not gonna walk out of here!" she yelled.
Carrington recessed the meeting, and the Rev. Tommie Lewis wound up behind the commission dais shouting at Knight moments later. "You take it back to committee or we're going to jail," Lewis, pastor of a prominent church in Birmingham, said in a booming voice.
Passions cooled after a break, and the panel moved on to other business. But Carrington ended the meeting without a vote and without saying when the commission would reconvene.
Jefferson County, Alabama's most populous area, filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history last year over debts totaling $4 billion, much of it linked to corrupt deals hatched to fund court-mandated improvements to the county's sewer system. Separately, courts stuck down a job tax that provided about a quarter of Jefferson County's revenues.
Carrington said the county has slashed its budget from $312 million two years ago to $180 million in the coming year, forcing commissioners to makes cuts in programs.
Commissioner Sandra Little Brown said the hospital needs restructuring, not closing.
"You're totally disrespecting the citizens of Jefferson County," Brown said.
Cooper Green treats about 10 indigent patients a day, Carrington said, and the rest of its patients have insurance or government-provided health benefits.
Under the latest proposal before commissioners, the hospital would not quit admitting new patients until Dec. 1 to allow time for a transition. Its emergency room would close afterward, and other area hospitals would have to begin treating those who have been seeking health care at Cooper Green.
Rosemary Blackmon, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Hospital Association, said other counties have taxes that are dedicated to indigent health care, but she was unaware of another hospital in Alabama that is government-owned and operates like Cooper Green.
"Certainly they've been a huge health care safety net for a long time," she said. "Our plea would be that those dollars that were used for indigent care will continue to be used for indigent care."
Commission officials said they have talked with other hospital executives about caring for Cooper Green's patients, but they've yet to develop a transition plan.