Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to close Southeast Louisiana Hospital near Mandeville is not sitting well with the people of St. Tammany Parish, where the former congressman from the 1st District often returns to warm receptions and broad smiles from those who helped to elevate him to the state’s highest office by an overwhelming majority of the vote. The ruffled feathers belong to many of the governor’s closest political allies, including power players such as Parish President Pat Brister and state Sen. Jack Donahue, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who count Jindal as a close friend of St. Tammany Parish.
Yet, when Jindal’s appointed secretary to the state Department of Health and Hospitals made the announcement last month that the hospital would close as a result of reduced federal funding for the state’s Medicaid program, the decision came “without so much as a phone call” ahead of time, said Donahue, R-Covington.
Brister and the St. Tammany Parish Council have formalized their opposition to the plan to shutter the mental hospital, with the council passing a resolution earlier this month objecting to the closure plan and requesting that the governor rescind the plan in the interest of the health and safety of the citizens of St. Tammany Parish, the New Orleans area and the entire state.
Brister said she is willing to offer the state more than half a million dollars that officials say would be saved during the current fiscal year by closing the hospital. She said she would consider providing the money if it means the parish can buy some time to ensure that services to the parish’s residents remain in close proximity.
One of St. Tammany's largest employers
In addition to the being one of the parish’s largest employers, with 563 employees, the iconic hospital provides 174 inpatient beds for the people of St. Tammany and elsewhere in the state.
Officials with DHH have said that roughly 250 employees will find jobs at other hospitals because of increased demand for services there, though those people will have to relocate outside the parish and, likely, the region.
The same fate will befall many of the patients at Southeast, who will have to travel long distances to the two remaining state hospitals that offer psychiatric care: Eastern Louisiana Mental Hospital in Jackson and Central Louisiana State Hospital in Pineville. Earlier, the state closed the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital and transferred those patients to Southeast.
Kathy Kliebert, deputy secretary at DHH, said many of the beds are “state” beds, used by people from throughout the state. The acute care beds that are used mostly by the people of St. Tammany Parish and greater New Orleans will remain in those areas, she said.
St. Tammany Parish is known as having one of the highest suicide rates in the state. Yet, of the 774 people that came through Southeast last year, just 135, or 17 percent, were from St. Tammany, St. Washington, Tangipahoa, Livingston and St. Helena parishes combined.
Kliebert noted that the state is working on a plan to provide transportation from a central point for those families that must travel to visit their loved ones at the hospitals in Jackson and Pineville. In the end, Kliebert said the state is “adamant” about continuing to provide the same services and the same number of inpatient beds within the state that Southeast does now.
Hospital will close in phases, beginning Oct. 1
The closure of Southeast will provide $555,000 in savings for the state in fiscal year 2013, which runs through June 30, Kliebert said. The hospital is expected to start phasing down operations Oct. 1.
Though Brister will meet Thursday in Baton Rouge with DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein to discuss the possibility of keeping the hospital open a little while longer, Kliebert said the hospital staying open until the end of the fiscal year just pushes the cost of the closure into the following year, thereby decreasing the expected savings in 2014.
Assuming the hospital closes as planned, the savings in successive years would amount to roughly $3.5 million, she said.
Kliebert said the closure plan has always been a part of DHH’s strategy, with the idea being to reduce the agency’s footprint in the state by transferring that responsibility to the private sector. The need to make budget cuts just sped up that plan.
And the congressional action that precipitated the state’s decision to close the hospital required quick action, or else the state would see smaller savings and be forced to make cuts elsewhere, Kliebert said. She said that’s why the state Legislature wasn’t notified ahead of time of the closure plan.
In fact, Rep. Scott Simon, who lives in Abita Springs and chairs the House’s Health and Welfare Committee, didn’t know it was coming, Donahue said. Simon did not return calls this week for comment on the matter.
St. Tammany senator 'blind-sided' by decision
Donahue said he was “blind-sided” by the decision, noting that he couldn’t recall anything like this ever happening before in his four years in the Senate. He said he would have expected some discussion to have occurred, with a plan in place to consolidate facilities, especially with six of the nine legislators representing St. Tammany Parish serving as committee chairs.
Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, shared that sentiment, saying that he believes the matter first should have come before the House and Senate Health and Welfare committees, at a minimum. Instead, he said he learned about the closure of Southeast from a press release.
“We’ve got a lot of the governor’s leadership right here in our parish, and it’s surprising none of us knew about it,” said Nevers, who chairs the senate’s Judiciary A Committee.
Brister said she believes the state made a rash decision to close the hospital and noted that it’s the state’s responsibility to help the parish find a way to keep the services in place.
“I know our citizens are upset with the way we found out about it and the way it came to pass,” she said, noting that the decision to close the hospital ultimately rests with Jindal. “I’m very disappointed with how this is taking shape. I wish he had given us a little more notice and ask for our input a little more. We literally had no input.”
The Parish Council isn’t even sure that the state has the legal authority to close the hospital, citing Title 28 of the Louisiana Revised Statues, which deals with the state’s obligation for the treatment of those who are mentally ill.
Mike Sevante, the council’s administrator, said he isn’t sure the law gives specific authority to close hospitals. He said he believes that the law simply allows the state to reorganize and consolidate administrative functions, not the operations themselves.
Along that same line of thinking, Donahue said he has asked the state attorney general’s office for an opinion as to whether Jindal had the legal authority to close the hospital.
“We feel certain that we are within our legal rights to close this facility,” Kliebert said. “We feel very confident that we are abiding by those laws.”
Donahue also asks in his letter to the Attorney General’s office what will happen to the $6.5 million the parish spent earlier this year to buy land adjacent to the hospital for use as a future mitigation bank. The money from that sale was to be used to fund the hospital’s maintenance and operations. The senator authored the bill in 2008 that allowed for the purchase, and Jindal signed the bill into law.