The way that a private firm is being selected to run Jefferson Parish’s two public hospitals has done little to inspire public confidence in the result.
That’s a real shame for the residents who rely on East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center for quality health care. They deserved an open discussion about the best choice to maintain and grow these hospitals for future generations of patients. Instead, the public has gotten what resembles an extended family squabble, with taxpayers forced to eavesdrop, like children sent to their rooms, while ostensibly responsible adults bickered in private.
An argument this heated couldn’t remain concealed indefinitely, so now residents can see the broad outlines of the ongoing dispute.
The respective boards governing the two hospitals are deeply divided about which firm should run them.
The East Jefferson board favors HCA, while the West Jefferson board wants Children’s Hospital to get the contract. There has been talk of dividing the contract and allowing each hospital to be managed by its favored suitor.
Ultimately, the Jefferson Parish Council will have to decide which way to go.
The controversy surrounding this issue shows what can happen when officials chart public policy in secret. Using an ill-conceived exemption in the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, the two hospital boards met jointly behind closed doors to discuss which firm should manage the hospitals. They couldn’t reach a consensus, and various participants in the closed sessions are using different accounts of what happened to support their positions.
That kind of posturing could have been largely avoided if the hospital boards had done their business on the record, in full public view.
There’s an even bigger potential problem with this secretive process. Jefferson Parish Inspector General David McClintock, who monitored the deliberations, has raised questions about whether the hospital boards misused the exemption to the Open Meetings Law to talk about matters that should have been discussed in public.
McClintock’s report to the Parish Council recommends the council seek an attorney general’s opinion on the matter before picking a hospital management firm.
We hope the council takes that advice.
Before making a decision on the hospital contract, the council also should request a formal recommendation from Kaufman Hall on which firm is best suited to operate the hospitals. The council agreed to pay Kaufman Hall, a private consultant, $1.3 million for its advice, and taxpayers deserve nothing less than a frank, unfettered appraisal from Kaufman Hall’s experts. Kaufman Hall should be allowed to deliver its recommendation without any preconditions from council members that seem aimed at steering the consultant toward a predetermined result. That would negate the value of hiring an independent, outside consultant in the first place.
Reportedly, Kaufman Hall already has suggested the hospitals be managed by one firm, not separately. We’ve seen no evidence that dividing this contract makes better business sense than keeping it whole. The public should expect a clear explanation from advocates of splitting the contract about why dividing the hospitals’ management would serve any purpose beyond political expedience.
This process has been compromised by too many political shortcuts already. Now, it’s time for officials to act in the public interest instead.