Together Baton Rouge is trying to ride a wave of outrage over a lack of emergency health care in north Baton Rouge with a proposal to create a health district that would span the areas of the city it has identified as lacking sufficient access to medical care.
To make its claim, the faith-based advocacy group gathered statistics — including a key one that there are just 17 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents in north and Mid City Baton Rouge, while there are 96 primary care doctors per 100,000 people in other parts of the parish.
But exactly how to persuade physicians and other health care providers to open up shop in those areas, even in a hub that could be subsidized by tax dollars, is still a puzzle that Together Baton Rouge activists are trying to figure out.
“We want to provide the health care district on paper so that other entities could be factored in depending on what the board decides,” said Dr. Claude Tellis, a retired pulmonologist who is working with Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of church and community leaders.
Together Baton Rouge’s plan is still in its steam-gathering phase. The group is trying to get 5,000 people across the city-parish to sign a petition that they hope to bring to the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in a few months, asking for the district that would span from Old South Baton Rouge to Mid City and north Baton Rouge, most likely including the ZIP codes 70801, 70802, 70805, 70806, 70807, 70811 and 70812.
The designation for a health district is actually called a “hospital services district,” though the Together Baton Rouge operatives say they are unsure if their district could end up including a full-fledged hospital. State law allows parishes to create the districts, which have a lot of leeway under the law. It says they can include “any activity designed and conducted to promote the general health of the community.”
With seven votes from the Metro Council, the district could be created, and the council also would create a board to run the district and determine its exact mandate.
Broderick Bagert, Together Baton Rouge’s lead organizer, envisions a health district that would focus on more than just trying to replace the Earl K. Long public hospital the state shuttered in 2013 or the Baton Rouge General emergency room in Mid City that closed its doors last year. While one priority for the group is, if not a hospital, at least a standalone ER or other emergency services, Bagert also hopes for HIV and other medical clinics, mental health services, healthy food options, places for exercise and recreation, and more.
“It has taken time to make sure we are not fighting reactively and not just trying to replace what was lost,” Bagert said.
The Rev. Richard Andrus, pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, called the idea “a village” where health and wellness is promoted.
Hospital services districts also have the ability to seek taxes from the people who live within them.
“The fact that there is that authority is really important,” Bagert said, though he said the services being offered would determine whether the district needed to seek a tax.
But some Metro Council members are questioning Together Baton Rouge’s strategy.
“The whole plan around bringing a health district is wonderful, fine, a marvelous idea,” said Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis. “I guess my deeper concern is how does it happen? I thought that they were gonna be coming up with more specifics as far as a plan to address health care. The creation of a district is fine, but short term, we have some things that need to be addressed now.”
Collins-Lewis said she wants to know what could be done to improve and expand services at existing health care facilities in north Baton Rouge, like Our Lady of the Lake’s urgent care clinic on Airline Highway.
And while Together Baton Rouge volunteers say it’s premature to say what the health district should include without having the framework in place for it, Councilman John Delgado sees it through the opposite lens.
“There’s no logic to create a taxing mechanism or a board that is authorized to put a tax on the ballot until you have an idea of how you’re going to spend the money,” Delgado said. “It’s just premature. You do this logically, you say we have a health partner that wants to come in and they’re going to build this.”
“Health district” has become almost a buzzword in Baton Rouge over recent months.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation aligned itself with the hospitals based in the south part of the parish, producing a plan for connecting and improving the health care providers in the Essen Lane/Perkins Road/Bluebonnet Boulevard corridor. BRAF’s plan is also called a health district, although it isn’t currently seeking taxing authority.
The ideas in it include creating a diabetes research center, building a four-year medical school and building out roads to improve traffic and promote walkability and bikeability in the area where hospitals are clustered in the city-parish. But when BRAF asked the Metro Council to approve the district’s zoning designation last month, north Baton Rouge residents pressured the council not to approve it.
North Baton Rouge residents said it was unfair for the city-parish’s policies to focus on already flourishing health care in south Baton Rouge when they could not see any attempts to replace their lost facilities. The council deferred voting on it, but the zoning proposal could be on the Metro Council’s radar again sometime in May.
Still, BRAF has surged forward with the district’s creation and recently named as executive director Suzy Sonnier, the state’s former secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services. BRAF leaders did not return a request for comment about the comparison of their health district to the proposed one in north Baton Rouge.
Together Baton Rouge did not take a position on BRAF’s health care district, though members showed up in full force at the zoning meeting and spoke vaguely of their own plans to improve health care in north Baton Rouge.
Regardless of the possible hospital incentives that Together Baton Rouge’s health district could provide, its research from the U.S. census, Center for Health Policy Research and American Medical Association physicians master file shows that 22 percent of the people in Mid City and north Baton Rouge lack health insurance. Louisiana’s plan to expand Medicaid, the federal government’s health insurance program for the poor, should help to cover more people, but Medicaid still does not reimburse providers at the level that private insurers typically pay.
Andrus said the physicians he knows who practice in north Baton Rouge do not see the same financial opportunities as those who practice in more affluent areas. Together Baton Rouge likes to call health care a public good that people might need to pay taxes for, comparable to police and roads.
“Capitalism can’t pay for everything, and the public has to chip in and pay for things,” Tellis said.
Delgado said, though, that health care providers have to worry about their bottom lines and that they need to know they can be successful. He said whatever is built in north Baton Rouge needs to be sustainable.
“What people forget is that, other than the state-run hospitals, hospitals are companies, just like anything else,” Delgado said. “They have to be profitable or else they go out of business. You have to have a model that is financially viable.”