Our Views: Deal on Jefferson Parish hospitals leaves rift

At this point, peace and good will concerning the future of Jefferson Parish’s two public hospitals would seem to require a Christmas miracle, as the parish’s leaders continue to struggle with a decision about how the hospitals should be managed.

We’re not expecting the miraculous, but we do think the public has a right to basic competence from its elected officials in the stewardship of two vitally important health institutions, East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center. Instead, months ago, parish leaders embarked upon a secretive process to decide which private management firm should operate the hospitals.

The fruits of that secrecy are now evident. The Jefferson Parish Council appears deadlocked on whether HCA or Louisiana Children’s Medical Center should run the hospitals, and whatever choice the council eventually makes will be tainted by public skepticism about the methods used to reach the decision.

Little wonder that Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich recently pronounced the selection process dead on arrival. He suggested the council scrap the process and start from scratch.

The council doesn’t seem inclined to take such a radical step. After months of acrimony and intrigue surrounding the direction of the hospitals, the choice about who will manage these institutions seems driven more by resignation than resolve. The political will to go back to the drawing board on management options for the hospitals isn’t evident.

Things didn’t have to work out this way. In the early stages of this process, residents appeared willing to support big changes for the hospitals. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the radically evolving economics of health care, created a strong rationale for private management of the hospitals.

But in staging a series of closed-door meetings on this issue that essentially reduced the public to a passive bystander, members of the two boards overseeing the hospitals created a climate of distrust that’s left this process in a shambles.

The council is scheduled to hold another public hearing about the issue at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Yenni Building, 1221 Elmwood Park Blvd. A previous public hearing was weighted with speakers who were closely connected, financially or otherwise, with the two contenders for the hospital management contract. The resulting discussion generated more heat than light, but public hearings tend to attract fierce partisans. Those limitations aside, we welcome any opportunity for members of the general public to participate in this decision. If parish leaders had involved the public from the start, the outcome might have been much better.

The council isn’t expected to make a final decision on the issue quickly. Cvitanovich has suggested the council hire another outside expert to review the management proposals. That kind of objective analysis might help clarify the council’s options and help build public confidence in its eventual selection. But whatever decision the council makes will leave political wounds in its wake, and healing the rifts caused by this controversy will take time.

That disharmony underscores the need to involve taxpayers as partners in public policy, not afterthoughts.