Stephanie Grace: Let sun shine on hospital options

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

From the beginning, the push to privatize Jefferson Parish’s public hospitals has been an insiders’ game.

Sure, there was reason for some level of confidentiality, given that the bidders were asked to provide the sort of information competitors love to see. There also was an argument in favor of eliminating the public’s right to vote on the matter, as the Legislature and the Parish Council did earlier this year. Had they not made the change, the choice between suitors might indeed have taken on the trappings of a political campaign rather than a business-based decision.

But the original plan to outsource control over East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center went way beyond that.

If parish officials who designed the process had gotten their way, the public that owns the two community hospitals would have learned precious little about the separately governed facilities’ joint fate, at least until after an operator was chosen and a deal done.

Under state law allowing negotiations over public hospitals to be carried out in secret, no details of the bids from Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, Ochsner Health System and HCA were made public before the two governing boards met, in private, to choose a favorite to recommend to the council. The council was originally expected to then ratify their choice — again, without cluing in the public on major elements such as price and scope.

It all would likely have gone down that way had the two hospital boards been able to overcome their differences and jointly recommend a company to take over the 30-year-lease. Instead, the process took a detour when West Jefferson board members gravitated toward Children’s and East Jefferson lined up behind HCA (although Ochsner appears to have since worked its way back into the mix).

The impasse finally forced the process out into the light of day, and much of what’s happened since just confirmed it should have been there all along.

Instead of the council hearing proposals in executive session, each company now has made its best case in open session.

The competing offers, each totaling more than a $1 billion, are on the table, as are economic benefits variables such as how many jobs each promised to create.

Once the debate went public, a previously overlooked major detail emerged. HCA, of Nashville, the only for-profit bidder and the only one that would be required to pay property taxes, also would be eligible to get back a portion of its investment in capital improvements. Who knows if we would have found out about that had the process remained secret?

And now that participants are talking more openly, they’re finally weighing in on the less tangible, more philosophical aspects of the selection between two local nonprofits and a national, deep-pocketed for-profit.

On Monday, the boards got together — once again, behind closed doors — to take one more stab at breaking the logjam.

They deadlocked again and punted the decision to the Parish Council, which is expected to take up the matter Thursday.

Two council members, Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Ben Zahn, say they want more time and information before they take a vote.

Chairman Chris Roberts, though, says he plans to call the vote this week, and argued his colleagues are simply trying to put off the matter because they don’t have the votes for their side.

Roberts, who on Monday confirmed he’s in the Children’s camp, said discussions about privatizing the hospitals have already dragged on for years.

Zahn countered his constituents have asked that they not rush to judgment, and said it’s sad to hear talk from officials about winning or losing.

Zahn’s got a point. Even now, the public is still playing catch-up on the various bidders and their proposals. And given that there has, indeed, been talk of revamping the hospitals for many years — in some form, for decades — a few more weeks or even months would not make much difference.

The council would be better off fully airing the proposals, answering the community’s questions and perhaps even seeking its own consultant to evaluate the options. The insiders had their chance. Now it’s time to let everyone else in on this all-important decision.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.