Southeast talks move forward

The Louisiana Department of Health and Human Services, St. Tammany Parish and multiple private operators are moving forward in negotiations to maintain mental health care services at Southeast Louisiana Hospital.

While official contracts are not expected to be finalized for another few weeks, DHH announced Thursday that the Florida-based company Meridian Behavioral Health was selected as the provider to continue operating psychiatric beds at the Southeast campus in Mandeville.

Numerous protest and rallies have been held in Mandeville in the months since the state announced plans to close the hospital.

DHH Deputy Secretary Kathy Kliebert said the agency is still working on negotiations in a “three-way agreement” with Meridian and the parish, which will play a role in maintaining the facilities.

Kliebert said the process is on track with the state’s overall goal of getting out of the business of operating the hospital by Dec. 31, a move that the states says will save taxpayers money while maintaining, or potentially increasing, the quality and scope of mental health care service in the area.

Three other providers have also been selected to take over some of the beds so as not to reduce the overall numbers of beds the hospital provided, Kliebert said. River Oaks and Community Care in New Orleans will each take eight beds, with another eight going to the Louisiana State University Hospital in Bogalusa. Kliebert said Meridian is also looking at finding ways to add more beds at Southeast.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said parish officials have been working with the state since July to find a way to keep the hospital open, which has been a part of the identity of the parish for 60 years.

With a high suicide rate in the parish, Brister said that services are needed for health reasons as well as economic ones, but the parish does not have the revenue source to sustain the facilities, requiring the private/public partnership.

In October, 94 of the long-term patients were moved to two other state hospitals in Pineville and Jackson as part of the consolidation effort. Psychiatrist Dr. Janet Bradley said families of patients have been hurt by the move, in that they now must spend an entire day traveling to visit their loved ones. It is also difficult, she said, because sometimes, even when loved ones are able to visit, the patients are not in the mood or refuse to see visitors.

Bradley said having a private provider move in is better than shuttering the hospital entirely, as was originally feared, but the ideal outcome in her opinion would be for the hospital to remain publicly run.

“It’s better than nothing,” Bradley said of the recent announcement of the selection of Meridian. “It’s at least a compromise, but is not what anyone had hoped for.”

Bradley said the needs of the patient are better prioritized when the hospital is state-funded and does not need to make a profit. She said she has concerns that there will be pressure to discharge patients prematurely because of costs.

The potential consequences of discharging a patient with mental health issues before they are ready not only presents a risk to the patient but to their families and innocent bystanders and the community at large, Bradley said. Bradley mentioned the recent case in which Chelsea Thornton, a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia, allegedly killed her two toddlers at their New Orleans home as a tragic illustration of the need for a stronger mental health system in the region.

Kliebert said there will be continued involvement by the state to keep a safety net in place, and if the private provider cannot keep find a way to make a profit and provide the funding agreed upon, the state will find another provider. There also will be monitors on the ground to ensure the same level of quality, Kliebert said.

Kliebert said the goal is to keep as many employees as possible, though it is not known at this time how many people will lose their jobs. Once the agreement is finalized, Kliebert said employees will be laid off by the state and then immediately begin a process of interviewing and rehiring with Meridian.

But Bradley said at this point there has been a good deal of information that has not been shared with employees and many unknowns remain. While the CEO of the hospital has held several meetings with employees, Bradley said a DHH representative has yet to meet with employees and has not sent any representatives to the various forums and meetings addressing concerns among employees and in the community over the past months.

Some employees may have a lot to lose even if rehired, Bradley said, and they have concerns about pensions and other retirement benefits.

While there were job offers made from the other two state-run hospitals to which Southeast patients were sent, Kliebert said not all openings were filled.

“Parish President Pat Brister and I have been aggressively pursuing a solution to the problem created by the state’s sudden budget cuts,” State Sen. Jack Donahue said in a news release. “This proposed agreement meets the needs of all who are involved. Taxpayers shoulder less burden, while services continue for those who need the benefits of this facility. This agreement also protects jobs in St. Tammany Parish,” Donahue said.

Bradley said she believes the outrage and protests from the community played a part in finding a solution that did not involved shutting down the hospital. She said a legislator told her they had never received as many calls on an issue as they had on Southeast. “I think they felt the pressure,” she said. “I think the DHH was surprised by how the community rallied around us.”