Physician seek use for River West; Ourso opposes prison hospital

Deidre Cruse, Governmental Reporter

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. told the POST/SOUTH Monday he would oppose any move by the Westside Physicians LLC to allow the use of the former River West Medical Center facility as a hospital for state prisoners.

The attorney for the physicians said his clients have not talked with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for months about that possibility, but were seeking a way to reopen the facility to serve the community. One prospect is using part of the facility as a psychiatric facility; another is leasing it to the parish to reopen as a hospital.

“The only reason we looked at it was as a catalyst to reopen the facility,” said Gregory Frost, an attorney with Breazeale, Sachse and Wilson of Baton Rouge. Treating “significantly ill” patients from the Department of Corrections would help pay to repair the hurricane-damaged building and allow other parts of the building to be used. “We didn't get past two meetings and one discussion with the client. It's not something we have actively explored in the last several months.”

Plaquemine attorney F. Barry Marionneaux, who represents the parish on hospital and other issues, said the physicians appeared to be close to leasing part of the old hospital to a Baton Rouge doctor for a psychiatric ward.

“Until the deal is done, I would rather not comment on that,” Frost said.

Ourso said he did not understand how the doctors could “even contemplate bringing this kind of stuff in here.”

“Is that what they really want to do,” he asked. Not that these people don't deserve care, but I didn't sign up for this. I will fight against it.”

Frost said his clients were willing to lease the hospital to the parish at fair market value, but parish officials have been unwilling to discuss the possibility and are moving ahead with plans to build a new facility.

Frost and his clients met with parish officials at the Courthouse last week. Afterwards, Ourso wrote a letter to DOC Secretary James M. LeBlanc asking for an update on “this potential project so that I can continue to keep Iberville Parish residents informed of the project or assure them that the project is not being considered.”

Numerous residents and business owners called his office to object to the idea when it was first reported.

The parish president wrote LeBlanc that the former hospital is in a highly populated residential area that includes a senior citizen's complex, as well as the Iberville Parish Health Unit, Civic Center and Plaquemine High School.

“I certainly understand and appreciate their concerns regarding a prisoner medical facility in their neighborhood,” he said in the letter, which was copied to some residents of the area. “I feel that there are other medical facilities located near state prisons, including Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital, that can handle the needs of state prisoners in our area.”

Iberville Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. said Ourso has not heard from LeBlanc, nor have state Sen. Rob Marionneaux and state Rep. Karen St. Germain, copied on the letter, responded.

“The legislature would have to appropriate money for medical facilities for prisoners,” Songy said.

“What Mr. Ourso is responding to is our discussion we had last week with the folks who are looking at the new hospital. He didn't feel the need to send us a copy of the letter,” Frost said, which he said would have been a matter of courtesy.

River West, the parish's only medical facility, was closed during bankruptcy proceedings with its operator a year and a half ago. Westside Physicians bought the facility just before it was closed.

Ourso and the Iberville Parish Council looked at buying the hospital, renovating it and hiring an operator to run it.

A top professional hospital appraiser picked from a list suggested by Westside Physicians' consultants assessed the property at $1.05 million, which then by law became the highest price the parish could pay for the property, Songy said. He said Westside Physicians, which asked – and continues to ask – $3.5 million for the property, turned the offer down.

Marionneaux recalled that architects Grace and Hebert, hired to assess the River West facility, set the cost of median renovations at a little more than $11 million and total renovations at just over $18 million.

“We understand they are limited by the appraised value,” Frost said. “...We are willing to lease it at fair market value rent. It could be open in six months or less at a fraction of the cost of building a new facility.”

Frost contested Grace and Hebert's renovation figures, but said the cost of renovation could be factored into the rent.

The parish has hired a consultant to investigate the construction of a new hospital with some $20 million in federal hurricane recovery money and a $3 million state appropriation. The consultant was in town last week looking at sites for a new facility, smaller than River West's, on La. 1 South and one near the intersection of Enterprise Boulevard South, due to be completed next month, with Belleview and Tenant roads, the parish president said.

Frost said he wanted to work with the parish's consultant toward a solution to the parish's health care needs.

Marionneaux said he invited Frost and Westside to the meeting last week because “we're talking to anybody and everybody we could in the area about the new hospital project. We said we would meet with his clients. We were interested in their thoughts and plans and finding out where they were headed.”

“My clients don't want to operate this hospital,” he said. “They never wanted to make a dime. They never wanted to be in the hospital business. They just wanted a place to practice medicine.”

Many doctors are leaving the area and none are moving in for want of a hospital at which to practice, Frost said.

“Whatever happens, we will continue to explore uses of the facility because it's there, and it would be a shame not to have it do something. Hopefully, in the short term, it could provide some of the most urgently need services,” Frost said, citing outpatient radiology, outpatient lab services and urgent care as examples.