The chief executive of two Louisiana state-owned hospitals, under heavy criticism over unpaid debts, handed over a $6 million check Friday in the middle of his testimony at a Louisiana Senate budget hearing as stunned senators watched in disbelief at the public presentation and the committee chairman called it "pathetic."
The bizarre exchange, which upended the typical drone of legislative financial hearings, is the latest twist in a continuing quarrel between LSU and the operator of the Shreveport and Monroe hospitals where university doctors and students practice under a state contract.
G.E. Ghali, chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Shreveport, told senators the medical school was owed $12 million from the Biomedical Research Foundation of Northwest Louisiana. The foundation runs the north Louisiana hospitals as University Health. Ghali said University Health was three months behind on payments for services provided by LSU doctors.
"This amount of money is significant to the running of our health sciences center," he said.
When it was University Health's turn to talk about the budget, hospitals CEO Daniel Snyder didn't dispute the debt, but suggested LSU hadn't submitted sufficient documentation to back up the billings.
Then, amid repeated questioning by Shreveport Sen. Greg Tarver about unpaid bills, Snyder pulled out a $6 million check at the witness table and publicly handed it to Ghali in a room of senators, health care lobbyists and other state leaders.
Officials were shocked, questioning whether Snyder would have delivered the check without pressure from Tarver and why he didn't quietly give the money to LSU officials who had been sitting in the room for hours.
"I've never seen anything like this is in my 20 years. This is clearly an example of why the hospital is so screwed up, I would have to think. If this is how you conduct business, the future doesn't seem to be too bright," said Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat.
"I don't know if you think this is cute or this is a way to set the stage for some kind of statement," LaFleur said. "To me, it looks pretty pathetic."
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief budget adviser, called the check delivery "theatrics," and indicated it was a reflection of the difficulties the Edwards administration has had working with the hospital manager.
"It just becomes very frustrating that this has to play out in front of you in a setting like this," Dardenne said, apologizing to senators.
Asked after the hearing why he presented the check to Ghali so publicly, Snyder shrugged and replied: "No offense intended. He was there. 'Here's your check.' It was an opportune time."
Snyder and University Health lawyer Stephen Sullivan said payments to the LSU medical school were delayed because they've only received one-page invoices without details of the physician services. They said that wouldn't pass muster with auditors.
Sullivan said he had no reason to believe the money isn't owed. But he added: "We cannot operate this hospital in a way that we're paying invoices with no support."
Ghali said he'll provide the documentation requested.
The Biomedical Research Foundation is operating the Monroe and Shreveport hospitals under a 2013 contract struck by former Gov. Bobby Jindal. The privatization deal in north Louisiana has been contentious since it began. University Health has repeatedly clashed with LSU and state officials over payment amounts and contract terms.
Health Secretary Rebekah Gee told senators Friday that she continues to hear reports about unclean medical instruments, non-working elevators and electricity outages at the hospitals.
Tarver said he is inundated with complaints from patients about services and from vendors who say they are owed thousands. He shouted: "If University Health stays there, they are going to destroy the LSU med school, and if we let that happen, we're just as guilty as they are."