Facing criticism about lack of health care elsewhere, Metro Council defers action on south Baton Rouge health district _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Internet publisher Gary Chambers makes a point during discussion about the Baton Rouge Health Care District in a Metro Council meeting Wednesday.

Want to be like pre-Katrina New Orleans? Turn Baton Rouge’s politics into a racially charged gumbo of resentment, with agitators haranguing public meetings about corrupt and self-serving elites, self-appointed tribunes of the people assailing any idea or project as part of the establishment’s agenda.

Only the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina forced a new approach through the Crescent City’s agony 10 years ago.

In Baton Rouge, the future looks like old New Orleans at the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, with a majority pandering to the agitated crowd in front of them without regard to either planning for the future or the common sense of the marketplace.

Today’s issue: a land-use plan, not a taxing district or anything else, for the “health district” around major hospitals along Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard.

Today’s insanity: A health district where hospitals already exist is somehow a plot to deprive poor neighborhoods of health care.

The result: a 7-4 vote for deferral of the land-use plan because people want to protest the lack of health care facilities north of Florida Boulevard.

People in the center of the city have a right to be worried, now that there is no longer a functioning emergency room in the area. Baton Rouge General’s emergency room on Florida Boulevard closed last year.

But is that relevant to a land-use plan for the existing hospitals? The two hours of Metro Council debate focused on everything but the realities that the hospitals are large institutions that are not moving anywhere, and traffic around them and related facilities in the immediate area can be a nightmare.

A land-use plan is overdue, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation was asked to lead an expert study as a way of advancing Future BR, the city’s comprehensive planning effort — for which the Metro Council voted.

Particularly idiotic is the notion that the foundation is the evil establishment neglecting northern neighborhoods, as the donors for the foundation put much of their money into anti-poverty and housing initiatives. “Stand up to the foundation,” said wannabe political player Gary Chambers. “Ask (BRAF) for the $750,000 for the study of north Baton Rouge and hire an African-American firm to do the study.”

Better health care in north Baton Rouge is not an either-or proposition with a land-use plan in the existing health district. The city-parish government ought to push better planning and transit options for the existing hospitals’ environs, without prejudice to the need for expanding health care elsewhere.

City administrator John Price is a member of the Planning Commission that earlier approved the health district map. “There’s no public money; there’s no choice between putting a hospital in south Baton Rouge versus north Baton Rouge,” Price told the council.

Despite Price’s wishes, the debate was hijacked to pit one side of the city-parish against another. No good deed goes unpunished at City Hall. The rejection of the land-use change does not prevent hospitals and community leaders from working together, but it’s not a good sign for the health of serious discussion at City Hall.

Amid the threats of a racially divisive debate over health care, the Metro Council meeting heard a positive contribution from a Together Baton Rouge delegation. The group is coming out with its own citizen-led study of how to approach the health care problem. The reality is that, despite the often underappreciated economic potential of north Baton Rouge, any health care project has to be a viable dollars-and-cents proposition.

Who knows if Together Baton Rouge will have the answer to a tough problem?

But all the wrong answers were on display at last week’s Metro Council.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.