Hospital top priority for parish, but help needed

Deidre Cruse, Governmental Reporter

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. will meet with consultants Wednesday about the feasibility of building a small new hospital in the Plaquemine area, but it appears that hurricane recovery funds won't be enough to launch the project.

“It's going to take a partnership with another health provider,” Ourso said in a recent interview. “That's all I can say.”

At Ourso's recommendation, the Parish Council proposed using some $21 million of the federal recovery funds to build a new hospital after plans to renovate the defunct River West Medical Center facility fell through. The idea is for the parish to build the new facility and lease it to an operator supervised by a parish board.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), which oversees the use of the federal recovery funding, has tentatively approved the idea, pending the findings of the parish's hospital consultant, the Maine firm of Skywater.

“The federal government wants to know, can you get people back into the hospital,” Ourso said.

“Twenty one or 22 million is not a hell of a lot of money in medical terms,” he said. “We're talking about $36 million for it to be viable.” That is the amount needed to build, equip, provide services and start-up money, he said.

Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. said Medicare and Medicaid payments would not flow in for at least 90 days after a new facility is opened, provided the new facility qualifies for those payments.

“Bricks and sticks are the easy part of a hospital,” Songy said.

“It's going to take a partnership with a hospital group is the early indication,” Ourso said, adding, “It doesn't look like it would be a huge task.”

The parish president said the hospital project – “the magnitude of getting this thing going” – is the hardest one he has tackled in his 12 years in the office. The parish not only must acquire or build a facility, but must meet numerous medical and government regulations to qualify for operating permits and licenses to treat Medicaid and Medicare patients, he indicated.

The level of reimbursement depends on the distance as the crow flies of a new hospital to “critical access” facilities in Baton Rouge, Songy added.

“People thought we could fix River West up and be open next week,” Ourso said. “It really gets frustrating trying to explain that to people. I'm committed [to the hospital project]. If one don't come [sic], I guess I'll get the blame for it. Lucky and I have, more than any municipality in this parish, tried to make a go of it.”

“There's no doubt the parish qualifies for the [recovery] money,” Songy said. “We just have to go through the process.”

“They key is successful,” Finance Director Randall Dunn said. “We get one shot at this. We have to make sure we have a successful hospital when all is said and done.”

Also on the agenda this year for the parish government are a sewer project in the Choctaw area and the construction of a $1.6 million community center in North Iberville, which will be bid out during the first quarter of the year, Ourso said.

The parish also is expecting a report from engineers Forte and Tablada on the condition of the parish's bridges, along with their commercial or private use.

“The councilmen will have to make decisions on what is important to this parish,” Ourso said. “The [former] police jury took in a lot of stuff that is not important for the parish.”