Legislator takes walk to illustrate bus problem

State Rep. Regina Barrow hiked Thursday morning on the shoulder of Airline Highway, as cars and trucks whizzed by, to demonstrate what poor and uninsured pregnant women have to go through since LSU closed its north Baton Rouge obstetrics clinic.

Since September, the former obstetrics and gynecology, or OB-GYN, patients of the LSU clinic have to travel to the new, state-of-the-art, Woman’s Hospital in south Baton Rouge.

“It’s a beautiful facility. I love it,” said Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, as she walked up the driveway off Pecue Lane in south Baton Rouge past Canadian Geese swimming in a curving pond. She was near the end of a mile-and-a-half trek from the nearest bus stop, at South Sherwood Forest Boulevard and Airline Highway.

“It’s just that you can’t get here unless you drive. It’s something that the people in (Gov. Bobby Jindal’s) administration should have thought about. They’re absolutely clueless,” Barrow said, adding that a low-cost shuttle could alleviate much of the problem. “You know, not everybody drives. Poor people, the people who relied on clinic at Earl K. Long, a lot of them don’t have cars. They go to work, they go to the doctor on the bus.”

About 18,000 poor and uninsured patients a year were seen at the north Baton Rouge clinic site, about 1,500 outpatient visits per month. Many of those patients live in Barrow’s district, which stretches around the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center into West Baton Rouge Parish.

Pre-natal care, evaluations and post-surgical care was provided at the clinic on the campus of the Earl K. Long center on Airline Highway at Greenwell Street.

The OB-GYN clinic was closed in preparation for shutting down the public hospital at the end of the year and moving most of the services to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, a private facility owned by Franciscan Missionaries, off Essen Lane near Interstate 10. The Lake refused to provide medical care for pregnant women and for state prisoners as part of its contract with LSU.

“We would support the city, the local community in whatever efforts they do to make it easier for patients to get to care,” said Frank Opelka, who heads LSU’s hospitals. “We’re the hospital and delivery system part.”

Bruce Greenstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said: “I love how passionate Rep. Barrow is and that she takes a real on-the-ground approach to understanding what her constituents have to do to access health care ... The double-edge of Woman’s Hospital is that it’s a little further out. But it is a brand new beautiful building with access to incredibly high-quality health care services.”

For those taking the bus, reaching the Woman’s Hospital and the attached doctor’s offices require walking across the huge Airline Highway intersection at Jefferson Highway; and past luxury car dealers; and on the shoulder of a four-lane highway without sidewalks and posted speed limits of 50-to-55 miles per hour.

“My husband really cautioned me,” Barrow said as an 18-wheeler barreled by kicking up grit. She “tweeted” her progress as she walked through broken glass, squashed beer cans and cigarette butts.

“Imagine what it was like yesterday when it was raining and cold,” said Melvin Abbott, of Brusly, one of Barrow’s constituents who walked with her along Airline Highway. “You know, if you miss your appointment by 15 minutes, you have to reschedule. This is something that needs to be addressed.”

Teri Fontenot, president and chief executive officer of Woman’s Hospital, said patients with Medicaid or some other government-sponsored insurance are entitled to transportation to and from appointments. Non-Emergency Medical Transportation is handled by private contractors and overseen by DHH.

“We take care of their medical needs when they get here. We’re not involved with those kinds of issues,” Fontenot said Thursday afternoon.

Fontenot said she asked her staff about the transportation issue and was told that most of the complaints they hear come from parents trying to visit their babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. The NCIU specializes in intensive medical care for ill or premature newborn infants. Those parents do not qualify for Medicaid-paid transportation, she said.

Barrow said Non-Emergency Medical Transportation does not universally cover all Medicaid patients, and the hundreds of thousands of others without any insurance cannot use the service. Medicaid is the program paid for by state and federal government. It covers about 1.2 million low-income, elderly and children in Louisiana.

Barrow said she thinks the transportation issue could be easily handled with a shuttle from one of the bus transfer stations. She said she would talk to Greenstein and bring the idea up at the next House Health and Welfare Committee meeting, which is scheduled for later this month.

Greenstein said, “The ability for health plans and Medicaid to pay for shuttles as trips for non-emergency transportation, that is an interesting idea that I would like to follow up on.”