EKL, clinics reduce services

Staff levels at LSU’s Earl K. Long Medical Center and its clinics have declined so much that LSU officials have had to reduce both inpatient and outpatient clinic services to the poor and working uninsured in the Baton Rouge area.

The number of employees leaving picked up in late January when LSU officials moved the Earl K. Long facility’s closure date up to April 15 from its original November target and decided to turn over operation of its four free-standing clinics to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, locally called the Lake, instead of keeping them under LSU.

The Lake becomes home to LSU’s inpatient hospital care and medical education programs on April 15. The state employees lose their state jobs with the privatization move.

LSU officials have not yet submitted the Earl K. Long employee layoff plans for state Civil Service Commission approval. Civil Service Director Shannon Templet said Wednesday that the commission must approve the plans by April 3 for them to go into effect with hospital closure.

Dr. Kevin Reed is LSU’s associate dean for Baton Rouge affairs and an associate professor of medicine. He said inpatient and outpatient capacity has to be based on staffing levels.

“It’s such a moving number. Day to day we have staff either retiring or taking their leave or changing jobs as we get closer to the end,” Reed said. When employees take leave, they are still on the payroll but don’t show up for work.

“As we move closer and closer to the transition, our ability to staff beds has become increasingly difficult because of the attrition of staff,” Reed said.

The impact is being felt more dramatically on the outpatient side, where current patients are having difficulty scheduling appointments and new patients are on waiting lists, he said. Surgical clinic activity has also been negatively affected.

“There’s less opportunity now for people to get into our clinics,” Reed said. “We need more staff in our clinics,” he said.

State Civil Service statistics show that there were 1,078 hospital and clinic employees as of June 29 at the Earl K. Long facility. As of March 1, there were 794 employees — a reduction of 284.

Reed said there are particular shortages in primary care providers who are the key to providing medical services.

The hospital, which had 76 staffed beds last fiscal year, downsized to 15 staffed beds this month. Ten staffed emergency room beds are still available.

Reed said the reduction in patients also will affect physicians in training and medical student experiences needed for graduate medical education and degree programs during the transition.

The cutbacks in the outpatient clinics are more troubling than those at the hospital because patients have other hospital options in the area.

LSU operates clinics at four locations around the city — North Baton Rouge at 5439 Airline Highway, MidCity at 1401 North Foster Drive, LSU Surgical Facility at 9032 Perkins Road, and South Baton Rouge at the Leo S. Butler Community Center at 950 E. Washington St. Those clinics and those on the Earl K. Long facility’s grounds off Airline Highway registered 113,376 outpatient visits last fiscal year.

Reed said the Lake is in the process of recruiting clinic staff for when it takes over April 15.

State Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said the process must be accelerated “to avoid a health care crisis in the capital region.”

“We cannot have a community that does not have access to health care,” said Broome, who represents the area in which the hospital is located.

LSU system Executive Vice President Frank Opelka said employees have been encouraged to stay on through the transition and seek employment with the Lake.

“When key employees accept other alternatives, it creates a challenge in maintaining care at our goals through the transition. The attrition has forced us to reduce our capacity more quickly than we anticipated for the transition,” Reed said.

Some people have been with the state and want to stay in a state job but there are fewer of those state jobs, Reed said. Some are looking for other opportunities, leaving rather than making the transition over to the Lake, he said.

Reed said it’s hard to get primary care providers to work in the clinics.

“We can put more nurses in our primary care clinics and increase the template somewhat. But we need primary care providers — both MDs and nurse practitioners,” Reed said. “As we recruit and the Lake hires more staff for the clinics, we can increase the template.”

Reed said both the Lake and the state Department of Health and Hospitals have been apprised of the health care cutbacks associated with staff leaving.

Catherine Harrell, spokeswoman at the Lake, said the hospital launched a website last month that goes into employment opportunities as well as information for employees, patients and the public. The website is http://www.transitionlsuhealthbr.com.

“The clinics are an important part of local health care and it’s our priority to maintain operations for a seamless transition, especially for patients,” Harrell said.

Since the Lake posted the clinic jobs in January, there have been 315 applicants who indicate the Earl K. Long facility or LSU as the current employer, Harrell said. So far, 176 clinic positions have been filled “and there’s a pool of applicants that we are continuing to work through,” she said.