NOAH deal advances

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Cecile Tebo, crisis intervention specialist and mental health advocate, speaks Wednesday in support of legislation that would bring more inpatient beds, behavioral health care for small children and expanded autism services to New Orleans. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Cecile Tebo, crisis intervention specialist and mental health advocate, speaks Wednesday in support of legislation that would bring more inpatient beds, behavioral health care for small children and expanded autism services to New Orleans.

A Louisiana House committee advanced legislation Wednesday that backers said would fill a void in mental health treatment for children in New Orleans.

Under a substitute bill replacing House Bill 595, Children’s Hospital would buy — rather than lease — the old New Orleans Adolescent Hospital.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Neil Abramson, said the agreement would bring more inpatient beds, behavioral health care for small children and expanded autism services to New Orleans. “This is a great day for the kids of New Orleans,” he said.

The House Committee on Natural Resources advanced the bill without objection despite concerns about the financial mechanics of the agreement.

New Orleans Adolescent Hospital closed in 2009. The hospital offered mental-health services for children and teens. With the closure, patients were sent to other hospitals, including a facility in Mandeville.

The state recently signed a lease agreement that gave Children’s access to the shuttered hospital.

At issue was whether Children’s would restore mental health services lost when the facility closed.

Abramson, D-New Orleans, filed legislation requiring NOAH’s new operator to bring back the previous services. State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, just wanted to give Children’s control of the property so it could expand its services.

On Wednesday, Abramson and Moreno presented legislators with a substitute bill that they said represented a compromise.

Children’s made a $4 million downpayment on the property. Once a 99-year lease is terminated, another $25 million will be transferred to the state. Children’s will receive at least $10 million in state construction dollars for improvements to the hospital.

Abramson said he always was flexible on what services Children’s would provide as long as the biggest voids were addressed. Under the compromise, he said, Children’s would work toward providing drug and alcohol treatment and long-term inpatient treatment. But Children’s would not have to provide those services immediately as long as it adds more pediatric mental health beds, delivers behavioral health care services for children under age 5 and expands autism services, he said.

“This is a really great day for the children, not only in New Orleans but really throughout the state of Louisiana,” Moreno said.

She said the compromise should clear up any misconceptions that Children’s is not committed to mental health care.

State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, asked if Children’s will be open admission on par with the charity hospitals.

Greg Feirn, chief financial officer of the Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, the parent company of Children’s Hospital, said he is 100 percent open to that. “Children’s, in its history, has never turned away any patient relative to their ability to pay,” he said.

Feirn said the hospital treated 60,000 children — from every parish in the state — last year.

He said NOAH is adjacent to Children’s Hospital, which is in desperate need of space to expand clinical services.

State Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, complained that the state is suffering from the Jindal administration dismantling public health care.

He questioned why the state would sell the hospital instead of leasing it and using the rent payments to attract federal dollars.

Moreno directed him to the governor’s Division of Administration. She said the Jindal administration wants to plug the money from Children’s into the state budget.

Liz Murrill, attorney for the Division of Administration, told Ortego to keep his focus on the legislation.

“This bill is about this land sale and providing health care in New Orleans,” she said.