Leasing of Jeff hospitals up for vote Wednesday

Two decades ago, the residents and elected officials of Jefferson Parish were so concerned about the possible sale of their public hospitals that they passed an ordinance requiring any attempts at privatization be put to a vote of the people.

But with plans to lease both East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center to one of three vendors on the table, little organized opposition has emerged to a proposal to scrap the requirement.

The Parish Council is expected to vote on rolling back that provision during a hearing Wednesday, allowing the hospitals to be leased without a referendum. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. in the General Government Building in Gretna.

Hospital officials have said the issues that could crop up during the run-up to a vote could scare off companies that might be interested in partnering with the hospitals and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“This will help us find the best suitor and the best deal in the long run,” said Sheriff Newell Normand, chairman of East Jefferson’s board of directors.

Council members have largely said they haven’t made up their minds yet and are waiting to see what happens at Wednesday’s meeting before deciding how they vote.

“I implore citizens to come out,” Councilman Mark Spears said.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said she’s heard little comment from constituents on the matter.

“My office has received more calls on a heavy rain day than on this issue,” said Lee-Sheng, whose district includes the East Jefferson hospital.

The plan to lease the public hospitals for 30 years comes after years in which both institutions have seen their financial health decline. East Jefferson operated in the red last year while West Jefferson stayed in the black, but only by a thin margin. Supporters of the leases have argued that partnering with a larger firm could give the medical centers more leverage to negotiate and the ability to trim expenses in their operations.

Three firms have emerged as finalists in the process: Ochsner Health Systems, which owns hospitals across the southern portion of the state; Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, which owns Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, Touro Infirmary and now runs New Orleans’ public hospital; and HCA, a for-profit national chain that runs Tulane Medical Center and other hospitals.

Under the proposal being considered Wednesday, an outright sale of one of the hospitals would require the approval of the voters in a referendum.

The state Legislature cleared the way for Wednesday’s vote earlier this year, when lawmakers rescinded a state law that also would have required a referendum before the hospitals could be privatized. Legislators voted for the proposal nearly unanimously, with only Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, opposing the measure.

Lee-Sheng said that for the most part, the calls she has received and conversations she’s had have been supportive of leasing the hospitals. That includes talks with friends who work at both hospitals and who may not favor a privatization, but prefer it to the alternative.

“It’s better to do this than to cut services,” she said.