As the "No Emergency Room" signs were taken down and a crowd celebrated the restoration of emergency care services Wednesday morning in north Baton Rouge, Emergency Medical Services paramedics were bracing to start transporting 911-call patients to the new facility that afternoon and evening.
The conversation about Our Lady of the Lake's new north Baton Rouge emergency room has mostly revolved around the need for health care access to be evenly distributed across the parish.
But EMS touted more benefits Wednesday, saying they expect the addition of the emergency room to decrease their transport times and the length of time paramedics have to spend waiting to drop off a patient at a hospital before moving on to the next call.
The emergency room near the site of the old Earl K. Long Hospital opened its doors to patients at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
At a ribbon-cutting celebration earlier in the day, Our Lady of the Lake and political leaders championed the innovative model in which they have a new emergency room and previously existing urgent care and primary care center all in one site.
"We come here multiple times a day to bring people from the urgent care to more advanced treatment," said EMS spokesman Mike Chustz, noting that such calls should also lessen because those types of patients can find emergency care at the same site.
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Chustz said EMS has spent weeks prepping paramedics for how they will handle the addition of the eight-bed emergency room in north Baton Rouge, though some of the training will happen on the fly. EMS will still route its most critical patients — like those mangled from car wrecks, people with serious head injuries and those bleeding out from gunshots — to Our Lady of the Lake's trauma center on Essen Lane.
But the new emergency room can still make a huge difference without taking trauma patients, Chustz said. EMS will use the new ER for patients closest to it who are in cardiac arrest, those who cannot breathe and others who call EMS with less life threatening injuries.
EMS response times have ticked upward since the closures of north Baton Rouge's state-run LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center in 2013 and Baton Rouge General's midcity emergency room in 2015. In 2012, it took paramedics and emergency medical technicians 13 minutes and 32 seconds, on average, to drive from where they picked up a patient to the hospital.
By the first quarter of 2016, those transportation times rose to an average of 16 minutes and 19 seconds.
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Chustz predicted they will drop again, and he also said EMS might see better response times because more EMS crews should be available without having to drive across the parish to an emergency room or having to wait at a clogged hospital.
Our Lady of the Lake was initially hesitant about opening a north Baton Rouge emergency room.
CEO Scott Wester questioned in an Advocate editorial board meeting in early 2016 whether north Baton Rouge needed an emergency room and said Our Lady of the Lake's expanded urgent cares on the north side of town were successfully filling gaps in healthcare access there.
But by later in 2016, Our Lady of the Lake had submitted a draft of a plan to the state for how it could expand its urgent care and primary care facility on Airline Highway to include an emergency room. At the same time, some local leaders pushed for an out-of-state for-profit hospital group called NextHealth LLC to receive money from the state to build a standalone ER.
By September of last year, the state and Our Lady of the Lake packaged together a deal to build the ER. Our Lady of the Lake already has a contract in which the state reimburses them for caring for the poor and uninsured in Baton Rouge, and the state wrote an additional $5.5 million into that contract to help Our Lady of the Lake construct the ER.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that despite inheriting a major budget deficit when he took office, he prioritized north Baton Rouge health care.
"I made a promise before I was elected, during the campaign, that the health care situation in north Baton Rouge would be improved," he said.
Wester said at the opening ceremony that the north Baton Rouge emergency room would have identical capabilities as the standalone emergency room that Our Lady of the Lake operates in Livingston. And Department of Health Secretary Rebekah Gee applauded Medicaid expansion for being the reason why so many people will be able to go to the emergency room, urgent care and primary care clinics for services.
Our Lady of the Lake expects that the emergency room will treat 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually, and that around 45 percent will pay with Medicaid. They expect an additional 20 percent to pay with Medicare or a Medicare replacement, 20 percent to pay with private insurance and the remaining 15 percent to pay with military coverage, worker's compensation, be uninsured or use a different form of payment.
Our Lady of the Lake based those projections on its Livingston emergency room, and they expect the payment breakdowns to be similar.
"This facility represents what universal coverage looks like," Gee said. "No stone unturned, no one turned away."
Our Lady of the Lake's north Baton Rouge emergency room will not be able to treat patients with the most serious medical problems — such as a …