Dr. Fred Cerise’s replacement named
The head of LSU’s health care system said Friday night that he was removed from his job leading the university’s statewide network of clinics and hospitals.
Fred Cerise said LSU System President William Jenkins told him of the change Thursday. Jenkins didn’t return two calls for comment Friday evening.
Cerise has been with LSU for nearly 20 years, including five years as vice president for health services and medical education. Cerise said he’s been offered an opportunity to stay on with the university in a yet to be determined capacity.
The move away from Cerise comes at a time when LSU’s hospital system is facing a more than $300 million cut in the dollars it receives to treat the poor and uninsured. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration made the cuts after the federal government reduced what it would pay for Medicaid, the joint state and federal program that insures about one-fourth of Louisiana’s population.
LSU is coping with those cuts by closing operating rooms and scaling back services. Those moves should prevent the state from having to close any hospitals, Cerise has said.
On Friday, Cerise said he wasn’t caught completely by surprise.
“There’s a lot of change happening,” Cerise said Friday. “I’m sure the board is looking for someone to lead the charge.”
When asked Friday for an interview about Cerise no longer being in charge of LSU’s hospitals, Jindal sent a prepared statement through his press office. “That’s a decision for the board and the LSU System President. With the changing environment in health care today, LSU’s health system needs a leader who can implement reforms that deliver services more efficiently,” Jindal said in the statement.
LSU Board of Supervisors Chairman Hank Danos said Cerise’s job performance had nothing to do with his removal. “He’s been a great advocate for what we’ve asked him to do. Because of the changes, we felt like it was a good opportunity to allow some fresh energy and fresh ideas to come in and help lead the changes that are necessary,” Danos said late Friday.
LSU has named Frank Opelka, vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans as Cerise’s replacement. He will have the newly-created position of LSU System executive vice president for health care and medical education redesign.
Friday afternoon, Cerise’s backers criticized the firing of someone they characterized as being “his own man” even under intense political pressure.
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who appointed Cerise as secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals during her tenure, voiced anger at the decision late Friday night.
“I’m very upset. I think they made a terrible mistake firing Fred Cerise, a man with so much integrity and so much knowledge on how to serve people,” Blanco said. “They want to pretend that everything is OK and it’s not OK. There’s going to be a terrible payday when this whole thing is said and done.”
Blanco defeated Jindal in the 2003 race for governor.
State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, also criticized Cerise’s removal on Friday evening. “I took it as a mistake number one,” said Pope, a member of the House Health and Welfare Committee.
However, Pope said the action was not entirely surprising after Cerise got embroiled in controversy recently over how best to make the cuts to the budgets of public hospitals. “You sort of got the feeling that his days were numbered,” Pope said.
He added, “I felt that Dr. Cerise was always on top of his game. He was always up front with us. I just don’t know where we go with health care in general.”
State Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville and vice chairman of Senate Health and Welfare Committee called Cerise’s removal “concerning.”
“Where else in the state do you have a gentleman that’s worked in the health care system, been secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals and the leader in the LSU Health System? Where are you going to get a résumé to replace this type of gentleman?” Mills said. “He was his own man ... He’s always going to serve the people of Louisiana. It’s always been a pleasure to serve with him.”
In a statement announcing his removal, Cerise referenced a report released last week from Washington, D.C.-based consultants AGB praising LSU for making significant changes in its health care delivery services over the past several years.
The report describes LSU’s health care system as in a state of “severe dysfunction” six years ago before going through a period of dramatic improvement. “Overall, health care delivery in Louisiana is markedly superior today to that of six years back,” the report says.
Cerise acknowledged the health care overhaul in his statements.
“Five years ago, I was asked to return to LSU to improve the coordination of its various health care components ... our team has made very significant advancements in that time,” Cerise said.
He listed LSU’s track record of caring for more than 500,000 patients annually, of which more than half are uninsured; the distinction that more than 70 percent of Louisiana physicians are trained in university hospitals; and also the system’s national ranking in the top 7 percent in phasing in electronic health records that are billed as being critical to improving quality, efficiency and patient safety.
And LSU did that while managing to keep costs “significantly below national peers,” he said.
Michelle Millhollon, Will Sentell and Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.