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Poorly disclosed flow of money to media raises questions in UMMC/BCBS dispute

A public healthcare entity and a non-profit media outlet share high dollar donors making transparency a challenge.

As first reported Friday on Jackson Jambalaya, there continues to be a curious flow of funds that now seems at least of tangential interest in a lawsuit between Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Mississippi and University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).

At issue is whether this flow of funds may have involved some sort of arrangement whereby preferential coverage was actually provided and/or the disclosure of which should have been more explicit in the Mississippi Today’s coverage of the UMMC/BCBS battle.

Jackson Jambalaya details that founding Mississippi Today Board Member Jim Barksdale was concurrently giving substantial sums of money to both Mississippi Today and UMMC for years via an organization called the Mississippi Common Fund Trust.

Though funded by almost entirely Barksdale, this organization was staffed and governed by University of Mississippi Foundation members.  The University of Mississippi Medical Center is affiliated with the University of Mississippi.

Optically complicating matters is that the University of Mississippi Medical Center began sponsoring Mississippi Today earlier in 2022 when Mississippi Today began focusing on coverage about the UMMC/Blue Cross Blue Shield dispute in ways that were substantially favorable to UMMC.  

This was at the same time that individual UMMC officials were, according to a complaint, engaging in defamatory speech about BCBS and how it interacted with UMMC after UMMC rejected the BCBS renewal terms.  Only after a defamation lawsuit was filed by BCBS against UMMC that sought records surrounding the financial relationship between UMMC and Mississippi Today did Mississippi Today begin to disclose publicly that UMMC had, in fact, started sponsoring Mississippi Today podcast and video content.

UMMC had spent some $279,000 on ads that denigrated Blue Cross Blue Shield that was funded out of “patient operations” budgets – not appropriated sums and not foundation money.  Neither UMMC nor Mississippi Today has disclosed the specific amount of money paid by UMMC (a public entity) to Mississippi Today (a non-profit).

However, in their editorial disclosure after the fact, Mississippi Today went out of their way to state that the financial transaction between UMMC and Mississippi Today was to have no bearing on the coverage.

Following the flow of donor money for this non-profit media outlet for transparency’s sake has been challenging.  As Jackson Jambalaya pointed out, in 2020 with revenues according to their 990 of just over $13,000 and operating expenses of just over $1,400,000, the entity is largely dependent on giving from donors.  

Mississippi Today has had a practice going back to its founding where its publicly required 990 filings – showing how the non profit received and spent money in the public interest – have been intentionally obfuscated with regards to specific donor amounts.  The outlet has listed all of their donors on one page but redacted the portions of their 990s that made it difficult to determine with clarity which donor had donated what amounts. Those amounts have been as little as $1,000 on the disclosure to over $500,000, which has had the net effect of having small dollar donors provide cover for very large institutional donors.

Another interesting wrinkle in the relationship between UMMC and Mississippi Today is the fact that Mississippi Today’s Community Health Editor, Kate Royals, was on staff at UMMC in their Communications Department ment immediately prior to working with Mississippi Today. 

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing. 

She is now back on the UMMC/BCBS beat writing stories for Mississippi Today that are highly critical of Blue Cross Blue Shield compensation and critical of how the disagreement between BCBS and UMMC affects transplant patients.

Communications around all of these items are likely to be covered by a subpoena requested by BCBS in their lawsuit. Specifically, they seek just about all texts, emails and prepared materials by UMMC staff in conjunction with outside media personnel regarding the BCBS/UMMC dispute.

Subpoena UMMC by yallpolitics

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