Parish Council, Ochsner move toward medical center deal

Staff reports

The Iberville Parish Council last week moved a step closer to providing a medical facility here with the approval of a cooperative endeavor agreement with Ochsner Clinic Foundation to operate a freestanding emergency room and walk-in clinic in a building the parish plans to construct.

Iberville has been without a hospital since River West Medical Center closed in May 2009. The resolution on the agreement, passed after a 25-minute executive session, said “the development of readily-accessible facilities to provide health care services, including emergency, diagnostic and outpatient services within the parish would create health care jobs and further economic development,” as well as avoid delays in medical care.

It also laid out a number of hurdles still to be crossed before the facility can become a reality.

One of the first is the purchase of a site on La. 1 near E. J. Gay School for the new facility, which the parish plans to build using federal hurricane recovery funds and a state appropriation. The council agreed to the introduction of an ordinance authorizing the parish to acquire “fee title” to land on La. 1 from E. J. Gay Planning & Manufacturing Company, which would retain mineral rights to the property.

The council is scheduled to take up the ordinance at its August 16 meeting, but Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. said a purchase deal is still being negotiated.

“It looks promising, but in case [negotiations] do break down, there is [sic] alternative sites,” Ourso said. “...We like this site.”

The proposed ordinance also would allow the parish to expropriate the property, but that was inserted at the owner's request for “tax-planning purposes,” the parish president said.

“We don't want people to think we're taking people's property,” Ourso said.

Under the terms of the cooperative endeavor agreement, the parish and Ochsner have 90 days to come up with detailed “facilities agreements” on Ochsner's lease of the facility. It also sets out a number of conditions that have to be met – sufficient funding, approval from the state Department of Health and Hospitals for Ochsner to operate the facility as a campus of Ochsner Medical Center-Baton Rouge, hiring an architect acceptable to Ochsner, bidding out the construction, approval of the Ochsner foundation board, satisfactory rent and a Louisiana Attorney General's opinion that the whole deal is legal.

The cooperative endeavor agreement also provides for the Parish Council to “directly or indirectly provide Medical Center with financial assistance to offset the cost of care for low income, medically uninsured citizens of the Parish receiving services at the facility. The specific terms and conditions of such financial assistance shall be contained in the facility agreements.”

Indications had been that, past building and equipping the facility, all operations would be up to the leaser. Ourso said he promised that there would not be any new tax, or millage, passed to support the facility.

Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. said the parish would cover costs of residents who are not qualified for either Medicaid or Medicare who have no medical insurance.

“You might have a 19-year-old without a job or money who needs to be treated,” Songy cited as an example.

The parish's hospital consultant, Robert E. Galloway, and attorney F. Barry Marionneaux are negotiating the fees with Ochsner, the CAO said. He said they had discussed some drafts of the lease agreement on Monday.

The cooperative endeavor agreement specifies that Ochsner will not be considered a public or quasi-public body subject to public audit or disclosure procedures expected of government agencies.

That would not prevent the parish government from checking on whether Ochner were billing properly for indigent or uninsured patients, Songy said.

“We have a right to audit how we spend public funds,” he said.

The Parish Council earmarked $21 million of federal hurricane recovery funds to the project, subject to the approval of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and the state's capital outlay budget includes another $3 million for the emergency room and walk-in clinic operation.

The cooperative endeavor agreement provides that the council and Ochsner will work toward providing mental health services later on and toward expanding the facility to provide additional services, including inpatient hospital beds.