Storm recovery money might fund new hospital

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The Iberville Parish Council was scheduled Tuesday to consider Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr.'s proposal to use most of their federal hurricane money to build a small new hospital in the Plaquemine area to replace River West Medical Center.

The parish has been without a hospital since 80-bed River West closed a year ago. Subsequently, Hurricane Gustav damaged the hospital building. Building a new facility with up to 25 beds would cost around $20 million.

Ourso and parish consultants laid out the proposal for the new hospital at a special meeting last week. The Parish Council held a committee meeting Monday night to gather additional information, and was scheduled to hold a public hearing and possibly vote on the issue at its regular meeting Tuesday.

The parish president raised the idea after the current owners Westside Physicians turned down an offer of $1.05 million for the parish to buy the former River West property. Officials said the parish could offer no more than the appraised fair market price of the facility.

Ourso had been investigating having the parish buy the hospital from the group of local doctors, using recovery funds to finance its repair and leasing it to a private operator.

“All is not lost,” consultant Tom David of Pan American Engineers, said he had advised the parish president.

Pan American is managing the parish's application for $44.6 million in projects to be paid for with federal hurricane recovery funds. The funds are being dispensed for community development block grants under the auspices of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).

The Parish Council has proposed nearly $24.27 million in projects, while the parish's six municipalities have are applying for projects to be financed with the remaining funds.

David said the Parish Council could shift funds from some of its other projects to pay for a new hospital.

“I know it's an eligible activity,” the consultant said.

Cameron and St. Bernard parishes both have used hurricane recovery funds to build hospitals.

To make such a significant change in the parish's disaster recovery projects – which the LRA must approve – the Parish Council needed to hold a new public hearing, David said.

Any proposed changes would affect affect only the parish's portion of the disaster funding.

“This is not affecting any of the commitments we made to the small towns and cities,” David said.

Parish President Ourso said the parish had included $2 million to help the City of Plaquemine build a new regional sewage treatment plant, and that would be among the projects pulled to help fund the hospital. He said he had not discussed the issue with Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. 'Tony” Gulotta.

A large percentage of sewage the city treats is from areas of the parish outside the city limits.

Ourso told the council that the parish's big-ticket item – a proposal to spend $12 million for water main replacements for Water District No. 3 – did not appear to qualify for the hurricane recovery funds, although the upgrade to improve water pressure for the large water district is badly needed.

“It was a good try,” he said. “It just didn't make it.”

A proposal for $700,000 for land use planning leading to a parishwide zoning ordinance also appeared doomed.

Plaquemine attorney F. Barry Marionneaux, who represented the parish in its negotiations with the Westside Physicians and who heads the Land Use Commission, said consultants already are looking for other grant funds.

The Parish Council had proposed spending $4.25 million to rehabilitate the River West facility.

Parish projects not on the chopping block are $1 million for a disaster relief complex in North Iberville, $1.8 million for housing, $2.1 million for canal restoration and $400,000 to repair storm damage to the American Legion hall.

In any event, he said, the hospital has a higher priority.

“Public health and safety comes first,” Ourso said. “...We're going to bring back what was lost.”

Ourso said the hospital could be a “legacy project” for parish officials.

“This could be a good thing that we all could hang our hat on as we walk away from here,” he said.

At Monday's committee meeting, Councilman Salaris Butler of Seymourville said the success of a new facility would hinge on the parish's finding the right hospital operator; otherwise, it could prove to be an expensive mistake.

“This hospital could drain every fund this parish brings in,” Butler warned.

Marionneaux said one of the first steps would be to hire a consultant to secure a contract with a “high quality operator.” HUD also has an expert who could advise the council, he said.

Building the hospital is a “one-shot deal,” he said. “It's up to you guys to put together a solid relationship with a world class operator.”

Councilman Eugene P. Stevens Jr. of Plaquemine asked if the operator would get all of the profits from the hospital, or would the parish share in them.

“I would think that is an issue that should be discussed and decided by the council,” Marionneaux said, suggesting investigating how other parishes handle the contract.

Marionneaux said the first issue facing the parish is building a facility that would attract an experienced operator.

The Iberville Chamber of Commerce and the Ourso administration already are looking for potential sites of 10 to 12 acres, which would include room for expansion, the attorney said.

Initially, he said, the building would be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot facility that would include 12 to 25 beds, an emergency room, a pharmacy, X-ray facilities and food service.

As of the first quarter of this year, hospital construction averaged $270 a square foot, Marionneaux said.

He said the second issue would be to find an operator that could afford to operate the hospital for 90 days without any Medicare or Medicaid support.

“You have to have a hospital open for 90 days to qualify for Medicare/Medicaid, so you need an operator with capital to stop in and run it for that period of time,” he said.