After more than two years of seeking a private operator for West Jefferson Medical Center, the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday decided to give the firm LCMC Health just 30 days to either finalize a lease or cease negotiations with parish leaders.
Council President Chris Roberts announced the deadline after a four-hour executive session that was closed to the public at the Joseph S. Yenni Building in Elmwood.
Roberts said both the parish and LCMC are close to resolving lingering issues, including whether to pay off existing bonds with a lump payment and whether LCMC has to provide free medical care for parish prisoners as part of any lease.
“(Such issues) continue to be negotiated — that we feel very positive about,” Roberts said. “But we don’t want to see this continue to drag on, and that’s why we felt this was in our best interest.”
Roberts expressed optimism that “a resolution is in sight,” but he said, “At the deadline, if we don’t have something done … we walk.” The parish at that point would survey other options.
In a statement, LCMC Chief Executive Officer Gregory Feirn said his outfit is “optimistic that West Jefferson Medical Center will become a part of the … family in the near future.”
The privatization of West Jefferson in Marrero has been an entangled process dating back to at least 2012, when the hospital and its counterpart in Metairie — East Jefferson General Hospital — started exploring privatization in hopes of improving deteriorating finances.
But the two hospital boards couldn’t agree on which group should take over their operations. West Jefferson preferred LCMC, which is in charge of Louisiana Children’s Hospital, Touro Infirmary and the Interim LSU Hospital in New Orleans. East Jefferson liked HCA, a national chain in charge of Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans.
The Parish Council, though divided, eventually agreed to let each hospital choose its own partner. But HCA had removed itself from consideration at that point. The council then voted to start negotiations to allow LCMC to run West Jefferson even as Ochsner Health System — the only other company in the running — withdrew its bid to run East Jefferson.
The negotiations have been private, but significant disagreements have been obvious. The parish’s negotiators accused LCMC of arriving at the two sides’ first meeting with a dramatically different proposal that would have meant a far less lucrative deal for the parish.
Differences included modifying the amount LCMC would pay toward improving the hospital and eliminating a section of the deal that would have seen LCMC assume from the hospital about $33 million in pension liabilities.
LCMC denied such allegations and contended the fact they were publicized indicated the process was dysfunctional. It even threatened to the end the negotiations.
There were reports earlier that such major sticking points had been resolved, but no lease had been reached. There were more snags recently.
After Wednesday’s executive session, the council also authorized its clerk to advertise the solicitation of qualifications for antitrust lawyers interested in assisting with the leasing of the East Jefferson hospital. That was done previously with West Jefferson.
No decision on the future of the East Jefferson hospital has been made.