Pact gives parish, Fla. firm control of hospital

MANDEVILLE — The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and St. Tammany Parish officials signed a final three-way agreement Monday giving the parish the authority to manage all property at Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville and giving Meridian Behavioral Health Services, of Florida, 58 psychiatric beds to operate.

A separate agreement between the parish and Meridian allows Meridian to operate the 58 beds — 42 youth and 16 adult — on the Southeast campus.

In July, the announcement that the state would cease operations at the hospital known for providing mental health services to the region’s most vulnerable for six decades sparked protest from the community.

“We are incredibly pleased that after five months of hard work we are moving forward with a solution for Southeast Louisiana Hospital,” St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said in a news release.

“This is a solution that continues to provide necessary services to this parish and the north shore, as well as keeps hundreds of jobs in this community. This is a great thing for St. Tammany Parish, but in the end, the patients and families of those (who) desperately need those services will benefit the most.”

In October, 94 patient beds were transferred from Southeast to the East Louisiana Mental Health System and Central Louisiana State Hospital. Some doctors expressed concern the transfers would hurt families who would have to travel much farther to visit their loved ones and hurt the stability needed for patients to recover.

In early November, DHH announced it had selected Meridian as the private provider that would take over operations at the hospital.

DHH Deputy Secretary Kathy Kliebert said in November the transfer 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 state officials say will save taxpayers while maintaining the quality and scope of mental health care service in the area.

The agreement is far from ideal and the fight is not over, according to Brad Ott, who has been active with the Committee to Save Southeast Louisiana Hospital since July.

Before Tuesday’s deal was finalized, Ott sent an email to Brister and members of the St. Tammany Parish Council in which he called the agreement “a hasty attempt to salvage what has become a human tragedy — the closure of adult long-term mental health beds, the mass layoff of dedicated health care professionals and the privatization of the priceless and PUBLIC Southeast Louisiana Hospital (SELH). . . In my humble opinion, I suggest that this deal also appears to be unlawful.”

The coalition of families, hospital staff and community leaders is urging the Parish Council to delay the approval, Ott said, pointing to a state statute that states: “No not-for-profit hospital shall be acquired by any person unless and until the acquisition is reviewed and approved by the attorney general.”

It is uncertain at this time how many Southeast employees will be laid off, but in a news release, DHH said, “Meridian will give hiring preference to current Southeast employees where comparable jobs are available and has already begun the process of interviewing employees.”

Referring to a “proposed layoff plan,” sent to a hospital employee on Nov. 30, Ott said he fears many dedicated professionals will lose their jobs.

Ott said he sees Southeast as just one on a long list of “many hospitals slated for closure, consolidation or privatization” in coming months. And regarding Southeast, which was known for some of the most progressive and humane treatment in the state, Ott siad, “They chose the best hospital to close.”

Ott said he is also concerned the reliance on profit as motive will interfere with health care decisions, especially for the often most desperate cases served by Southeast.

If more input had been solicited from the health care professionals at Southeast, Ott said, “It could have contributed to a better outcome.”

As the state works with other providers in the area to operate additional beds, the series of agreements maintains the state’s inpatient psychiatric bed capacity, according to DHH.

“Southeast is a valuable part of our community that provides needed mental health services, and it is also a vital piece of our local economy,” state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said. “I’m pleased with this outcome, which keeps the hospital open, keeps jobs in our parish and is a better value for the taxpayers.”

Meridian will begin operating psychiatric inpatient beds Jan. 2.

The state will officially discontinue management on Jan 1.