The Edwards administration is talking with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center about opening an emergency room in north Baton Rouge, the state’s health chief said Wednesday night.
“My marching orders are to make sure we have an emergency room in north Baton Rouge,” Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, said in an interview with The Advocate. It was the first time someone from the administration confirmed that talks are underway.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said in June he was not ready to commit to a specific plan for health care in north Baton Rouge. But he reaffirmed his belief the area is in need of emergency medical care and more health care access.
Officials and residents of the largely inner city neighborhoods have been seeking an emergency room since 2013, when the state closed the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center on Airline Highway. The charity hospital’s functions were transferred to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, known locally as the Lake, a dozen or so miles away in south Baton Rouge. Patients with life-threatening injuries and illnesses now must cross town for emergency care.
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“We are in active discussions with the Lake and they have, so far, not given us a firm commitment or a date. But they are committed to trying to make it work,” Gee said.
Lake officials were noncommittal in a prepared statement released late Wednesday in response to Gee’s comments.
“We will continue to work with the Department of Health on how we can be helpful in their decision on how our community should expand additional services,” Kelly Zimmerman, a spokeswoman said. “Our top priority is preserving the good health of families in our community.”
The talks, so far, have been about logistics and financing, she said. And while no timeline has been set, Gee said her deadline is “as soon as possible.” The emergency room would be part of the LSU Health North Urgent Care Center, run by the Lake a few blocks north of where the Earl K. Long public hospital used to stand. The urgent care center was erected as part of the Lake’s contract with the state to operate as a charity for the poor and to handle training for medical school students.
To become a licensed emergency room, staffing will need to change — physicians with specific specialties will have to be on site 24-7 — and different equipment will be necessary and on hand.
“We have had conversations with our licensing standards to go over those conditions. I am awaiting from them at this point a final budget. I don’t have that yet,” Gee said. Without a definite feel for the numbers, it’s hard to tell just how the Lake would be paid.
State Sen. Regina Barrow, in whose district the emergency room would be located, said Wednesday night that the Lake had submitted a plan to the administration but the negotiations are far from finalized.
As state representative, the Democrat organized protests, such as three-hour-long public bus rides to highlight how far the Lake is located from the community the Earl had served.
“I don’t want it to be rushed. I want something that meets the needs of the community,” Barrow said, adding that she would call Edwards on Thursday to reschedule a meeting postponed because of the crisis that developed after the police shooting of Alton Sterling.
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Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel and her #NBRNOW Blue Ribbon Commission spearheaded a proposal to build an emergency room at Champion Medical Center in Howell Place near the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. But they stumbled upon a few roadblocks along the way, with Champion needing to secure a transfer agreement with local hospitals and saying they would need $7 million in subsidies over the next two years to make the emergency room a reality.
Banks-Daniel envisioned that the standalone ER at Champion Medical Center would be the catalyst for economic development around it, and she said the Airline Highway location for the Lake would not spur the same kind of investment in north Baton Rouge.
Banks-Daniel said Wednesday she has mixed feelings about the possible emergency room at the Lake’s expansive urgent care center on Airline Highway. Both Our Lady of the Lake Chief Executive Officer Scott Wester and Vice President of Mission Coletta Barrett have said the solution for north Baton Rouge is not emergency care, that the area needs more primary care.
“During the entire time that we have been pursuing a full-service ER in north Baton Rouge, their CEO indicated that it was a myth that there was a need for an ER in north Baton Rouge,” Banks-Daniel said.
Metro Councilman LaMont Cole said putting an emergency room in north Baton Rouge is not enough.
“I would be pleased to see an emergency room in that area of town,” Cole said. “Pleased, but not satisfied because I think we need a hospital in north Baton Rouge along with an emergency room.”
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, on the other hand, said she is excited by the prospect of the emergency room and she hopes it can happen quickly. She said she’s particularly interested in how the funding and subsidies for the Lake’s possible emergency room would differ from that of Champion’s.
“It’s a good location, it’s accessible, it’s not far off the interstate,” Collins-Lewis said about the Airline Highway location.
Collins-Lewis is also hoping for progress on a healthcare proposal brought forward by Together Baton Rouge. The group wants to create a healthcare district in north Baton Rouge where the Cortana Mall could possibly become a hub for primary care services.