As the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council approved a measure Wednesday asking local hospitals to work with a proposed emergency room for medically underserved north Baton Rouge, Mayor-President Kip Holden said the members were creating a lopsided business environment that favored one company over others.
The nonbinding resolution encourages three Baton Rouge hospitals to enter discussions about taking patients to be transferred from a possible emergency room that a Texas-based company proposes at its surgical center in Howell Place. While the emergency room could treat patients for the short term, those needing acute care and hospital stays past a few days would have to be transferred to a larger hospital.
Holden has been in opposition with some on the council about access to health care and economic development in north Baton Rouge. While some advocates have complained about insufficient access to health care in that area, Holden has argued that existing services have served the whole parish well.
The split between Holden and the council added to the contentious nature of the meeting. Council members disagreed over whether it is proper for government to interfere in business, particularly when the proposed emergency room at Champion Medical Center does not yet have funding.
“It’s just letting you have a seamless process for health care,” resolution co-sponsor Chauna Banks-Daniel said about the proposed patient transfer agreements. “We’re talking about patients who have acute health care needs and need the capabilities of an acute (care) hospital. This is not a Third World country; this is not a Third World city.”
But Holden said the resolution would set a horrible precedent.
“I don’t think anybody can really recall anything of that magnitude where the council tries to interfere with private businesses and tries to dictate to them or get somebody else involved in what is going on,” said a furious Holden in a six-minute critique of the resolution. “I don’t know when we’ve singled out one entity to say we want other businesses to help this one entity.”
Holden and some council members said they should not prop up a for-profit hospital company’s quest to create patient transfer agreements with the local nonprofit hospitals Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge General Medical Center and Ochsner Health System.
“Now, the sign will go up if you pass this,” Holden said. “Come to Baton Rouge: Not only will we give you tax credits, but our council will encourage other entities to do business with you. And P.S., no credit check and no delay.”
Voting for the resolution were Banks-Daniel, John Delgado, Ryan Heck, Trae Welch, LaMont Cole, Erika Green, Donna Collins-Lewis and Tara Wicker. Voting against it were Joel Boé, Chandler Loupe, Buddy Amoroso and Scott Wilson.
Boé and Holden both pointed out the millions of dollars in funding Champion’s owner company, Next Health LLC, has said it would need to make the emergency room work. Next Health has said it wants $6 million to $6.5 million to build and operate it in the first year and another $3 million to $3.5 million a year to operate it in the years afterward.
Banks-Daniel said at the meeting that the money would come from state government.
But state government has been struggling to fund existing health care resources across Louisiana. It was unclear for many weeks whether safety net hospitals that receive money from the state to care for the poor would continue to receive that money, given the state’s deficit.
The Legislature shifted $72 million from the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships to fund contracts with the nine of those hospitals. But the hospital contracts are being renegotiated, and Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake — which has the partnership with the state — had threatened a few months ago to walk away if the hospital was not adequately funded.
Boé said too much of Wednesday’s conversation was based on rumor and speculation about Champion Medical Center and its funding sources. He called it “offensive” to the community that the Metro Council would encourage private business to collaborate and base their reasons for doing so on anything other than facts.
“This is a resolution that is attempting to find a solution, and you’re going to find nothing but trouble with it. Period,” Boé said. “Please do your homework in advance; please don’t put the cart before the horse.”
Wicker, however, said the resolution could not force the hospitals to do anything, but it could give Champion Medical Center leverage in asking for the patient transfer agreements. Wicker said she did not see what harm could come from encouraging the hospitals to discuss creating the partnerships.
The hospitals responded last week to the news that the Metro Council was drafting the resolution by saying they were unfamiliar with the plans. They said they had not been approached about any patient transfer agreements with Champion.
The hospitals also defended their services: Baton Rouge General Health System CEO Mark Slyter said they have no plans to change course; Our Lady of the Lake reminded people of its north Baton Rouge clinic; and Ochsner said it has worked with the health care community to ensure all of Baton Rouge is being served.
The resolution was pushed by members of the #NBRNOW Blue Ribbon Commission, which Banks-Daniel created to propose health care and economic development solutions for north Baton Rouge.
But Loupe pointed out that neither Gary Chambers nor Cleve Dunn Jr. — both commission members who lobbied for the resolution — currently work in the health care industry.
“I try to rely on people that have expertise in health care, and I did meet with people from that field, so I won’t be supporting this resolution,” Loupe said.
It was not Loupe’s only tense moment with Chambers.
When Cole asked Chambers to speak to the credibility of Champion, which Holden called into question, Chambers gave a lengthy answer that Cole said was drifting from his question.
Loupe said he would not allow Chambers to give political speeches instead of answering questions.
“Y’all the most disrespectful white boys I’ve ever met,” Chambers said, prompting Loupe to ask for Chambers to be escorted from the council chamber. Baton Rouge Police Department security led Chambers out of the meeting.
Council members also squabbled with one another throughout the debate. Both Collins-Lewis and Boé chided Banks-Daniel for speaking out of order and interrupting them before Wilson, who sits next to Banks-Daniel, exploded at her.
“Look, you’re in my ear, and I’m getting tired of it,” he fumed. “Can we get some order?”
Before voting on the resolution, the Metro Council also approved the zoning for the Baton Rouge Health District, which had been delayed for months. The district is a nonprofit coalition of local hospitals and researchers working to build up the area where many medical centers are located in the Essen Lane/Bluebonnet Boulevard/Perkins Road corridor.