University of Louisville President James Ramsey does have a challenge on his hands: Make the case for selling a taxpayer-owned asset, University Hospital in Louisville, for $200 million to a non-profit corporation that's based in Denver and controlled by a religious organization.
Perhaps Ramsey thought that hiring Democratic political pro turned hospital executive Jerry Johnson to advise him on the merger would advance the cause.
But Johnson's one-year $200,000 no-bid contract is raising eyebrows and questions about the quality of decision-making that's gone into the proposed merger.
If the deal wins approvals from Gov. Steve Beshear and the Federal Trade Commission, it would unite University Hospital, Saint Joseph Health System owned by Catholic Health Initiatives in Denver and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's Health Care of Louisville.
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Saint Joseph would be the controlling partner.
Johnson, a former Democratic Party chairman and aide to former Gov. Paul Patton, was an executive at Pikeville Medical Center for about five years, but he left the hospital last year.
He is being paid by the University of Louisville Foundation. Johnson's role in promoting the merger might never have come to light without Tom Loftus' reporting in The Courier-Journal of Louisville.
Louisville legislators have raised questions about the large sum being paid to Johnson for a year's work on a single assignment and the lack of transparency surrounding his hiring.
U of L says he brings expertise in hospital management and rural health care, as well as political skills and knowledge.
University Hospital is a teaching hospital and health-care provider of last resort to the poor and uninsured in Kentucky's largest city.
U of L needs to be able to sell this deal — to state and federal officials and especially to the public — on its merits.
Paying a lot of money to a well-connected political insider to help make the deal happen probably isn't the best way to gain public trust.