Many of 354 lose jobs at hospital

Friday marked the final day of work for many Southeast Louisiana Hospital employees, who are being laid off as the state ends management of the psychiatric hospital and it reopens under a private Florida firm.

Meridian Behavioral Health Systems begins its management Wednesday, but because of the New Year’s holiday, this week was the last for about 354 employees. That includes 320 permanent employees and 34 probational employees who are losing their jobs with the change.

Kathy Kliebert, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said that it won’t be clear exactly how many employees are laid off until next week, because some of those whose jobs are being eliminated are taking retirement.

Meridian has hired 125 people, almost all of whom were hospital employees, Kliebert said, noting that the company had agreed to give them preference. The company is also seeking licensing for 75 additional beds for adolescents, which are residential but are a lower level of treatment than a hospital bed. That could mean some additional jobs, Kliebert said.

Vehicles began streaming from the hospital campus late Friday afternoon just as rain began falling, but departing employees mostly declined comment. Paul Wood, of Slidell, who worked in the hospital’s IT department for 11 years, described the mood on the last day simply as sad — “not as much anger as there used to be, but some.’’

From his department, Wood said, one employee was hired by Meridian; another, who has 14 months left until he retires, was moved to the state’s psychiatric hospital in Jackson.

As recently as yesterday, protesters were handing out fliers in front of the hospital, according to Brad Ott, a spokesman for the Committee to Save Southeast Louisiana Hospital. Numerous protests, rallies and public meetings were mounted since July, when DHH first announced plans to close the facility in response to reduced Medicaid funding to the state.

Instead of closing it, the state ended up privatizing the hospital, which had 176 beds before the changes but will now have 58 — 42 for adolescents and 16 for adults.

In October, DHH transferred 94 patient beds to other state hospitals in Jackson and Pineville. In early November, the agency selected Meridian as the private provider to take over Southeast. And earlier this month, the state Civil Service Commission Board approved the layoffs.

St. Tammany officials ended up signing a three-way agreement that gives St. Tammany Parish authority to manage all property at Southeast and gives Meridian 58 psychiatric beds to operate.

Kliebert said other facilities housed on the campus will remain, including an addiction treatment facility, the Methodist Home for Children and the St. Tammany Parish school system’s Jump Start program. Those programs were among the services that St. Tammany officials said that they were determined to save.

Wood noted that St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister was on the radio Friday painting what he called a rosy picture and saying that the hospital has been saved. “That’s not true, lots of people lost their jobs, and there are a third of the beds we used to have,” Wood said.

“We’re not too happy with the politicians but sad to say goodbye to our friends,” he said.

Kliebert noted that besides the 94 beds transferred to other state hospitals, there has been an expansion of beds in the area: eight in Bogalusa, eight at Community Care Hospital in New Orleans and eight adolescent beds at River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans.

The Committee to Save Southeast Hospital is planning to meet at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mandeville City Hall. Ott said employees were to decide whether to appeal the decision made by the state Civil Service Commission.