Earl K. Long Medical Center closure gets final approval 

The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Wednesday gave the final required signoff for the expedited closure of the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center in north Baton Rouge.

The vote came after two hours of sometimes heated discussion over the Jindal administration’s handling of the hospital’s closure and the moving of patient care and medical education programs to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in south Baton Rouge.

The move takes place Monday, which is well ahead of the November date in the original contract. Nearly 780 employees will lose their state jobs at the Earl K. Long hospital and its outpatient clinics around the city.

The budget committee was required to act on the timing change as well as the expansion of the cooperative endeavor agreement to cover the Our Lady of the Lake operation of the outpatient clinics. That transition also occurs Monday.

“This is about preserving patient care for the Medicaid and uninsured in Baton Rouge,” said state Department of Health and Hospitals Undersecretary Jerry Phillips. “This is a very good deal for the people of Baton Rouge.”

He said the public-private partnership was a better and less expensive route to replacing the antiquated hospital that ran into accreditation problems year after year.

But some local legislators criticized the exclusion of those affected in the decision-making process. They complained about LSU officials moving up the date of the closure without having all the arrangements finalized, such as where to provide care for women and prisoners.

The original agreement was signed three years ago.

LSU System health executive Frank Opelka said an agreement with Woman’s Hospital to take over LSU’s women’s clinic was formalized Tuesday. He also said arrangements for prisoner care traditionally delivered at the Earl K. Long facility on Airline Highway “are being worked out today.”

Opelka said some financial terms of the agreement with the Lake’s purchase of services from LSU are still being negotiated.

“Here we are five days away from the closure of a major health care facility and we are still here in a meeting trying to get answers to questions,” said state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge. “There’s something wrong with that picture.

“This whole process has been a betrayal of the public trust,” Broome said.

State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, sought a delay in the hospital closure. “I am very worried that many people in my area won’t have access to care,” she said.

Barrow pointed to “all the unanswered questions,” including more than 30 coming from the federal agency that must approve a key part of the financing for the Lake takeover.

“We are the only ones losing a major hospital” as part of the administration’s plan for private takeover of LSU hospitals, said state Rep. Bodi White, R-Central.

White said he is concerned that more uninsured patients are going to be showing up in the emergency rooms of Baton Rouge General-Mid City and Lane Memorial Regional Medical Center in Zachary, the two hospitals closest to the Earl K. Long facility.

The state needs to provide extra dollars to care for the uninsured or the community hospitals might go bankrupt, White said.

White’s motion for the budget committee’s approval of the contract changes passed without objection.

Later, Barrow complained to her House colleagues about her treatment before the budget panel.

“I feel completely disrespected by chairman,” Barrow said, referring to state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, who strongly encouraged those testifying to keep comments brief. She said she hoped any chairman of a House committee would “want the opposition to speak and not be rushed.”

Donahue, who also had gotten a complaint from Broome, said he was trying to limit discussion to the state-Lake agreement changes.

Scott Wester, the chief executive officer for Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, tried to reassure legislators that access to care would not suffer and that physicians in training would get a better experience and exposure to a larger volume of patients.

Wester said the Lake has already been accepting patients from the Earl K. Long facility.

More than 300 people have been hired to work in outpatient clinics that will be staffed by LSU physicians, Wester said.