Parish could take over River West, Ourso suggests

Staff Writer
Plaquemine Post South

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. suggested last week that the parish could take ownership of the River West Medical Center property and look for a health-care provider to offer basic services there.

Ourso made the suggestion to the Parish Council after the group of local doctors that bought the facility shortly before a bankruptcy court closed it down asked the parish for between $5 million and   $10 million in hurricane recovery funds to repair the damages from Hurricane Gustav.

“Older people are calling me day in and day out,” Ourso said, about reopening was the parish's only hospital.

The parish president said he did not think the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) would approve using public money to repair the property owned by Westside Physicians LLC, but might agree if the parish took over the facility.

“All it is property now,” Ourso said. “They don't have a license.”

A court appointed patient care ombudsman force the hospital to close in May after emergency room physicians who had not been paid in some time pulled out. The hospital lost its license then.

Iberville Parish has received some $48 million in hurricane recovery money to be shared among the Parish Council and parish six municipal governments. A hospital consultant Westside Physicians hired to explore reopening the hospital met with parish Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. after the Iberville Chamber of Commerce meeting at which Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered a check for the federal funds.

Afterward, Dr. J. Dean Valdez, president of Westside Physicians, wrote Songy a letter requesting the funds.

'We respectfully submit this letter as our unified request for the parish to designate sufficient funds necessary to repair the hospital facility damaged as a result of Hurricane Gustav,” Valdez wrote. “In order for our community to regain this vital asset and community resource, we as the recent owners of the physical plant and property are willing to take the necessary steps to attract a suitable operator for the hospital.”

He said the doctors had not hired an architect or engineer, but had been told unofficially the repair costs would be between $5 million and $10 million.

“We realize this is a large request,” Valdez said.

“But, we also believe that given the following facts, the parish will see the wisdom of our request.”

He said River West had served a community of more than 77,000 before it closed. It had more than 200 employees, payroll of more than $12 million, and an overall budget of some $15.5 million. The hospital had some 33,000 patients a year, including 2,700 inpatients, 15,000 emergency room visits and 15,000 other outpatient visits, and provided more than $5 million in free care to patients unable to pay. More than 20 local physicians were active in admitting patients to River West.

“The future impact of planning, growth and development of Iberville Parish, in our humble opinion, will be stifled as new employees of local businesses and potential re-location of new businesses to our community will be hindered by the lack of a local community hospital,” the doctor said.

Ourso told the Parish Council there had been “rumors and letters that I haven't been doing anything to save the hospital. Now, all of a sudden that group wants to talk about the LRA.”

He said he, Songy and Parish Council Chairman Eugene P.  Stevens Jr. had worked long hours to help save the hospital before its closure.

Ourso said the parish spent $55,000 to intervene to force Shiloh Health Services into involuntary bankruptcy early this year.

“The parish took the lead,” he said. “They were writing employees hot checks.”

Parish officials looked into the possibility of forming a hospital district and passing a property tax to help keep River West in business.

“With the recession, the economy and the recent [31-mill] School Board tax, we didn't think the hospital district would fly,” Ourso said. He said the district would have needed parish wide support, although the hospital mainly would have benefited people in the Plaquemine area, he said, noting that residents of North and East Iberville have better access to Baton Rouge hospitals.

Three months ago, Ourso said, the doctors asked for a $500,000 loan to help keep the hospital afloat, but were unwilling to put up that amount to secure the loan, even though they had the hospital building and the 17 acres of land surrounding it by that time.

“We could not give a $500,000 loan to a doctor's group without half a million in securities,” the parish president said.