Proposing a quick conclusion to what’s starting to feel like an endless standoff over the future of Jefferson Parish’s two public hospitals, Council Chairman Chris Roberts last week said he would “not be a party to watching this process unravel at the core.”
Which kind of prompts the question: Hasn’t it already?
Roberts’ call for a quick vote — even though the council has yet to see a final inspector general report on how the East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center boards handled the initially secretive process, or to formally hear from the $1.3 million consulting firm over which of three suitors to recommend, or to come even close to agreeing which factors to emphasize in choosing between a local nonprofit system and a national for-profit chain — suggests he has cobbled together a majority for his preferred plan, to jointly lease the two hospitals to Louisiana Children’s Medical Center.
But a majority hardly translates into a consensus.
In fact, rather than moving toward agreement, the various factions have spent the past few months pulling apart, choosing up sides and digging in.
Roberts, Elton Lagasse and Paul Johnston are on the record backing Children’s, the preferred choice of the West Jeff hospital board. Ricky Templet hasn’t committed, and nor has Mark Spears, who may recuse himself because his wife is a doctor at West Jeff; both represent the West Bank and are potential votes for Children’s as well. Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Ben Zahn are likely votes for HCA, the first choice of the East Jeff hospital board, although neither has taken a public position.
Of course, the initial, orderly, not-so-unraveled plan to lease out the hospitals was problematic in its own right. The council at first agreed to let the two appointed boards conduct the search almost entirely out of public view and choose a winner. Jefferson politicians went so far as to push to overturn a state law, and rescind a parish ordinance, that would have given voters a say in the matter — an approach that suggested the financial concerns over remaining independent in an era of broad upheaval and rapid consolidation were severe enough to risk angering their constituents.
The plan raised all sorts of questions over transparency and accountability, but at least it suggested an agreement among officials to examine the options with open minds and to support the outcome, whatever that might be.
But when the two boards deadlocked and punted the decision to the politicians, the whole debate, not surprisingly, got bogged down in political wrangling. In some ways, it’s even taken on the trappings of a campaign, complete with endorsements and full page newspapers ads, which is exactly the type of thing parish officials initially said they’d hoped to avoid.
Rather than provide clarity, the outside consultant, Kaufman Hall, has only muddied the waters.
Chip Cahill, West Jeff’s board president, has said the company offered three different recommendations at various times. The firm itself has denied offering a specific recommendation. Company officials were asked to appear at a special council meeting last week — after council members expended considerable energy hashing out the terms of the invitation — but begged off due to a scheduling conflict. But the firm did take the time to issue a new recommendation to split up the two hospitals rather than entering a single contract — an apparent reversal of an earlier position — due to what it deemed “irreconcilable” differences between the two boards. That’s the preference of East Jeff board chairman Sheriff Newell Normand, who so strongly favors HCA that he’s willing to forgo the efficiencies and other advantages of leasing out the hospitals as a unit.
Roberts, who wants Children’s to take over both hospitals despite the East Jeff board’s reluctance, then labeled the firm’s opinions inconsistent and unreliable and issued his call for an immediate vote. Both Lee-Sheng and Zahn said that would amount to circumventing the process.
Meanwhile, new Inspector General David McClintock, who chose the hospital privatization as the subject of his first report, called in his draft for the council to conduct simultaneous negotiations with multiple bidders, to give the parish more leverage. He also questioned whether the process has been sufficiently transparent.
The East Jeff medical staff even commissioned its own consultant report, which recommended either HCA or Ochsner.
After all this, Roberts’ call for a binding vote amounts to the nuclear option, a final gambit to break what is, by all appearances, a hopeless deadlock. Yet even if he has the votes to get his way, putting the pieces back together will be a whole different matter.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com.