The newly hired executive director of the proposed Baton Rouge Health District is excited about its potential to boost the city’s health and economy, but Suzy Sonnier also will have to cope with a push to tie the district’s existence to the lack of a hospital in north Baton Rouge.
Sonnier, formerly secretary of the state Department of Children and Family Services, declined to comment Monday on how she plans to navigate the political upheaval, other than to say she is going to talk to lots of people about the district, which primarily surrounds medical facilities in the Essen Lane-Bluebonnet Boulevard-Perkins Road corridor.
“It’s my first day on the job. ... I know we have a lot of work to do. I am, honestly, just looking deeper into the plans that have been created and will begin meeting with many of the people who were part of developing this vision,” Sonnier said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council member Tara Wicker said she hopes Sonnier’s appointment will lead to discussions of access to health care across the parish.
“At least there will be some opportunity to sit at the table, to have some conversation about … how we address those issues holistically,” Wicker said, “because it really is an issue for the entire community and not just one segment of the population.”
The health district represents the parish’s major hospitals, which must play a role in solving the shortage of access to care in the northern part of the parish, Wicker said.
In addition to the hospitals, Sonnier will work with government agencies, community leaders and medical staff to make the district a reality. The district’s initial priorities include reducing traffic congestion near hospitals, connecting parks and walking paths, and establishing a diabetes and obesity center to help lower the impact of the chronic illnesses on the community.
For the past two years, the idea of the health district has drawn lots of praise. In December, the district released its strategic plan, an effort that cost $700,000 and included community meetings to discuss the idea and take recommendations. The announcement included a 15-member coalition of local health care providers, government agencies and higher education institutions. Coalition members praised the district for its potential to lift the health and well-being of the entire community, as well as boost the area’s economy.
Since then, the district has come under fire from politicians, residents and other critics who say medical care in north Baton Rouge should be a priority over adding the south Baton Rouge health district to the city-parish’s land-use plan. In the past few years, north Baton Rouge has lost Earl K. Long Medical Center and the emergency room at Baton Rouge General’s Mid City campus.
The frustration over those changes erupted at a February Metro Council meeting. A proposal to add the district to the city-parish’s land-use plan turned into a two-hour debate about the lack of health care access in the northern part of the parish.
Council member John Delgado said he has known Sonnier for many years and said she is a great choice to head the district.
Sonnier did a good job as head of the Department of Children and Family Services, is committed to the Baton Rouge community and will move the project forward, he said.
Sonnier’s appointment also removes critics’ focus on the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, one of the district’s main architects and its default public relations agency.
Delgado said the district’s many proponents, which include LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the hospitals, didn’t have a director to help them speak with a unified voice. The foundation was sort of cast into that role, he said.
By taking a step back, the foundation is placing the focus on the district’s members/proponents, Delgado said.
Sonnier will report to a joint operating board, still being formed, made up of leaders from health care organizations throughout Baton Rouge. She also will work with hospital administrators, government agencies, community leaders and medical staff to implement the district’s master plan.