Gov. John Bel Edwards says he wants to help facilitate reopening an emergency room to serve north Baton Rouge and thinks expanding the state’s Medicaid program will help.
“I’m working very hard to get an emergency room back open in north Baton Rouge,” Edwards told a crowd of about 250 people at a health care summit at Pennington Biomedical Center on Tuesday.
Baton Rouge General last year shut down its Mid City Emergency Room operations, citing financial constraints. That has forced patients in north Baton Rouge and the downtown area to travel miles to seek emergency care.
Meanwhile, Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, has pushed for the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, which would provide health care coverage to an estimated 300,000 more people.
Edwards’ speech Tuesday primarily focused on those efforts to grow Medicaid coverage in Louisiana, but he later elaborated on his “very preliminary” plans for renewed emergency room coverage for north Baton Rouge.
He told reporters that he sees a new partnership between Baton Rouge General and Ochsner Health System as a potential opportunity, though hospital leaders were later cool to the suggestion.
“I have asked them as they do that (partnership) to explore the possibility of reopening that emergency room,” Edwards said. “I believe that Medicaid expansion affords them an opportunity to do that because they will have many fewer people accessing services in that emergency room without reimbursement. The business model is different now, and I’ve asked them to look at that.”
In response to questions from The Advocate about Edwards’ comments, neither Baton Rouge General nor Ochsner explicitly endorsed the governor’s proposal.
Edwards, who signed an order expanding Medicaid earlier this year, has spent the past several weeks touting the benefits ahead when the state opens coverage to more residents July 1.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation this week launched a fundraising campaign to get $2.9 million from businesses and organizations to help with the enrollment and screening process.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do for the least among us,” Edwards told the health care summit crowd, invoking Christianity and Scripture.
Edwards said he also believes that support is building for expansion. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, had blocked the effort, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, because he opposed the federal health care law.
“I’m convinced that a majority of the House and Senate support expansion of coverage,” Edwards said Tuesday. “We’re on track to move forward and I’m very encouraged by the level of support I’m seeing.”
Adults who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $33,460 for a family of four — will become eligible under the expanded income requirements.
“This is just the right thing to do for our people,” Edwards said.
But it’s unclear whether it will be enough to revive the emergency room operations, as Edwards hopes.
Baton Rouge General Chief Executive Officer Mark Slyter said Tuesday afternoon that Medicaid expansion alone likely would not make enough of a difference to convince the hospital to reopen its shuttered emergency room. He said reopening the ER is not in his plans but he’s open to discussions.
“If more of the uninsured were covered with Medicaid, that’d still help, but it’s still below the cost of what we’re able to provide,” Slyter said. “There were just not enough private insurance patients that were coming to Mid City, so we had to change the business model.”
In a statement, Ochsner Health System didn’t directly respond to Edwards’ proposal.
“The Ochsner leadership team has worked collaboratively with other area hospital leadership teams and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to respond to the changes in Greater Baton Rouge and ensure that there are adequate systems in place to respond to the area’s true emergency care needs,” President and CEO Warner Thomas said. “Our intent to partner with Baton Rouge General is representative of our commitment to the community to support the growing health care needs.”
Edwards said he will be exploring other ideas if the providers can’t find a way to reopen the General’s Mid City ER.
“Certainly, if that doesn’t happen then we are going to find some other way,” Edwards said. “In the short term, that’s the best avenue that we have.”
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report