The state Civil Service Commission on Wednesday narrowly approved the layoff of about 350 state employees of the Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville.
The commission gave the go-ahead on a 4-3 vote with commission chairman David Duplantier breaking a tie on the seven member panel.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals is making the moves at the mental health hospital as part of budget cuts that came after Congress reduced federal Medicaid funding support to Louisiana.
Some of Southeast’s patients have been transferred to two other state hospitals in Jackson and Pineville.
The commission action was required because the care of the remaining patients will be taken over by private contractors, including one that will continue to operate the Southeast campus.
The commission must decide whether the private takeover will result in cost-savings and efficiencies for the state. If it meets that test, then layoffs can be approved.
“Most of the objections people have is a policy question. We are not a policy board ... If they meet that standard of review, there is little we can do,” said commissioner Scott Hughes.
Opponents decried the impact of the change on employees — who would lose their jobs Jan. 2 — as well as the fragile patients in their care.
“This has been deplorably handled,” said commissioner Kenneth Polite Jr., noting the state’s failure to involve elected officials as well as Southeast employees and patients in the decision-making. He called it an “efficient dictatorship in a democratic state.”
Polite also referred to a letter from Southeast employees that questioned cost savings associated with the changes. The letter totaled up lost wages and state and local tax revenues as $1.7 million to $1.8 million.
“Those economic indicators are outside my purview,” responded Office of Behavior Health assistant secretary Anthony Speier. “We have to look at costs related to our obligation to deliver services to citizens.”
Speier said about 150 employees will be needed at the hospital as Meridian Behavior Health Services takes over the in-patient services there.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals and St. Tammany Parish officials recently signed a final three-way agreement giving the parish the authority to manage all property at Southeast and giving Meridian 58 psychiatric beds to operate.
A separate agreement between the parish and Meridian allows Meridian to operate the 58 beds — 42 youth and 16 adult — on the Southeast campus.
Commissioner Curtis “Pete” Fremin, the state employee representative on the commission, asked if Speier’s agency had explored letting Southeast employee remain on the state payroll in the changeover.
“We can’t do that because they will all be private sector employees with Meridian,” said Speier. “We do not have an alternate strategy to keep those individuals on.”
Speier said Meridian would be interviewing Southeast employees for jobs.
Fremin said savings from privatization isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. “It’s hard to put a price on services,” he said.
Southeast activist and advocate Brad Ott questioned whether DHH has gone through all the legal hoops to close the hospital.
DHH executive counsel Steve Russo said Southeast is not a not-for-profit and neither is the facility being acquired by anyone. “We could not sell or lease by statute. We are closing it down,” said Russo. The facility will be re-opened under a new state license, he said.
Ott and others including Southeast pharmacy director Linda Jenkins asked the commission to stop the layoffs.
“It’s an assault on the financial future” of Southeast employees, said Jenkins, who said she will be forced to take early retirement even though she doesn’t want to. “They are real people. They are real lives.”
Commissioner Lee Griffin asked Speier if other options were available other than the plan before the commission.
“Closing the facility and not trying to retain safety-net beds,” Speier said. “The option of maintaining a state-run facility is not feasible.”
Approving the layoffs were Duplantier, Hughes, Griffin and John McLure. Opposing the plan were Polite, Fremin and Sidney J. Tobias Jr.