A coalition of 15 local health care providers, government agencies and higher education institutions unveiled ambitious plans for a Baton Rouge Health District on Thursday afternoon in a proposal that covers everything from building several new roads in the Essen/Bluebonnet/Perkins corridor to establishing a nationally recognized diabetes and obesity treatment center.
“We’re looking at future possibilities and maximizing the assets that we have,” said John Spain, Baton Rouge Area Foundation executive vice president. BRAF paid for the $700,000 plan, which came out of a series of public meetings conducted in fall 2014. “With the providers we have, the resources we have in our hospitals, our insurance companies, Pennington Biomedical Center, can we look at it in a much larger way and aspire to create a health district?”
The roots for the study came out of the FutureBR comprehensive plan, which was completed in 2011. That master plan found that the medical corridor around Essen/Bluebonnet/Perkins was a key district in need of redevelopment. The study is available at brhealthdistrict.org.
Beginning in January 2014, consultants with Perkins+Will got input from key stakeholders, such as Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, General Health System, Woman’s Hospital, Ochsner Medical Center, Pennington and The Neuromedical Center. “Everybody we asked to be a part of it said yes,” Spain said.
One of the key things to come out of the effort to develop the health district was how the various health care systems — legitimate competitors with each other — managed to work together.
“All of our partners and providers said, ‘Yes, we will absolutely create a health district as an organization that will let us talk together,’” Spain said. “There are also places where we as a community can benefit from them working together.”
Mark Slyter, president and CEO of Baton Rouge General, said the health district plans not only treat the sick but address the overall health of current and future generations. “I’m excited about the collaboration and synergy this has created so far,” he said.
Teri Fontenot, president and CEO of Woman’s Hospital, said the plan will benefit her medical center, even though it is outside the boundaries of health district. “It’s not just about the location,” she said. “This is truly a comprehensive plan to elevate the health and well-being of people in the Baton Rouge area and also make a strong business case for why we should do this.”
The plan has four central recommendations. The first is to actually form a Baton Rouge Health District. While a nonprofit agency has been set up with representatives from 15 health care, government and educational institutions, plans are in the works to hire an executive director who would work with the board to respond to member needs and oversee implementation of the projects that have been identified. Spain said some résumés have already been received, and a director should be hired in early 2016.
The district may have the authority to assess taxes to make improvements in the area, Spain said. “It’s something on the agenda,” he said.
Traffic is the second key component of the district plans.
The study calls for building a district street network that will include building a north-south road between Essen and Bluebonnet that would connect Perkins Road to Interstate 10, extending Dijon Drive to create an east-west connector between Essen and Bluebonnet, and rerouting Picardy Avenue to turn traffic onto the Mall of Louisiana Boulevard. Mayor-President Kip Holden said the city-parish has fast-tracked the Dijon extension, and the $23 million project will open in 2019. Funds from the Green Light road construction program will be used to build the four-lane boulevard, Holden said.
Holden noted that the Essen/Bluebonnet/Perkins corridor is the most congested part of the parish and will only get busier because of the impending construction of the 130-bed Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital and Baton Rouge General’s plans to develop entertainment and lifestyle programs on the 62 acres surrounding its Bluebonnet campus.
Along with the new roads, there would also be a network of biking and walking trails in the area to promote overall health and reduce traffic. Other ideas being considered include using buses to shuttle employees from centralized parking garages and lots to hospitals.
Establishing a diabetes and obesity center also is being recommended. The study suggests the center should be a collaboration between Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana and area hospitals.
“We spend $1.5 billion on diabetes each year,” Spain said, referring to how much is spent locally on the disease. “Instead of having the various hospitals and entities on their own, we need to look at creating a center shared by everyone.” The center would put together doctors, nutritionists and fitness experts — everything a diabetic or obese patient would need under one roof. “Because everything would be there, the costs would be reduced, and the quality would go up,” Spain said.
The patients at the center could also take part in clinical research trials and studies going on at Pennington, to increase the knowledge about diabetes and obesity. The goal would be to establish a regionally or even nationally recognized treatment center, Spain said.
The final component is a study on the feasibility of opening a four-year medical school in Baton Rouge, which would be a branch of the LSU medical school in New Orleans. Both LSU and Tulane are training residents at Our Lady of the Lake and Baton Rouge General.
One of the ideas being considered is to allow students to earn a medical degree along with a law, engineering or business degree from LSU. This could let students earn a medical degree and an engineering degree and prepare them for lucrative careers in developing medical software and telemedicine.
“The reality is that LSU has a very robust medical school in New Orleans and Shreveport and resident programs all over the state,” Spain said. “How do we establish a medical school in a way where we do not take away from others?”
BRAF has hired Tripp-Umbach, a Pittsburgh consulting firm to conduct a feasibility and economic impact study on the proposed medical school. The $150,000 report should be completed by the summer. The study will project how much the medical school would cost and identify sources of funding.
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter @TCB_TheAdvocate.