BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers granted final approval Wednesday to closing the doors of LSU's public hospital in Baton Rouge next week and shifting health care services for the poor and uninsured to a private hospital.
Backing of the latest version of the privatization agreement came from the joint House and Senate budget committee without objection, despite concerns that gaps still remained in care for pregnant women, prisoners and mental health services.
In heated exchanges, Baton Rouge lawmakers said Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shoved through the privatization plans without enough community input and without adequate assurances patients will get the same level of care — still negotiating changes only days before shutting down Earl K. Long Medical Center.
"A major health care facility is about to be closed, and we're having a committee meeting. Something's wrong with that picture, terribly wrong with that picture. This whole process has been a betrayal of the public's trust. We have dismantled the core values of access, respect and excellence in this process," Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said, her voice rising.
The discussion highlighted continuing worries that some lawmakers have about Jindal's push to privatize nearly all of the 10-hospital LSU system that acts as a safety net for the uninsured and that provides training to many of the state's medical students.
Earl K. Long will be shuttered Monday, with most of its care picked up by Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. The private hospital also will take over operation of the outpatient clinics affiliated with Earl K. Long.
The LSU-run hospital's more than 770 employees will be laid off and can reapply for their jobs with Our Lady of the Lake.
After Louisiana received a federal Medicaid financing cut, the Jindal administration hastened the closure of Earl K. Long, which had been decided in 2010 and intended for later this year as a way to avoid building a replacement for EKL's deteriorating facility.
The modifications approved by lawmakers Wednesday moved up the contract's start date and gives Our Lady of the Lake management of the LSU clinics.
LSU hospitals chief Frank Opelka said the shift will preserve services and graduate medical training programs. In questioning, he acknowledged negotiations continued over some pieces of the arrangement.
For example, he said a separate agreement was reached Tuesday with another Baton Rouge private hospital to pick up care for pregnant women, and details were still being shored up on how to care for prisoners.
Scott Wester, CEO of Our Lady of the Lake, sought to assure lawmakers that adequate services would be in place and that his hospital has increased staff and beds to care for the poor and uninsured.
"This is about preserving patient care," said Jerry Phillips, undersecretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. "This is a very good deal for the people of Baton Rouge."
Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, said he was told in 2010 that questions of access would be answered before Earl K. Long was closed, but he said those questions still remained Wednesday.
But even the critics on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget said they didn't know what they could do other than approve the final agreement for shutting down Earl K. Long, because layoff and other closure plans were already in place.
"We had no alternatives," Broome said. "Our people Monday would have had no one to service them."