BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Shortened emergency room waits and an eliminated prescription backlog in Baton Rouge. A re-established gynecology clinic in Lake Charles. The reopening of operating rooms in New Orleans and an orthopedic clinic in Lafayette that were previously shuttered by budget cuts.
Those are among the examples of health care changes highlighted by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, seeking to quell criticism as the last pieces are put in place for the privatization of Louisiana's charity hospital system.
The governor and top cabinet leaders say the first outsourcing deals, rolled out in April and June, have improved services for the poor and uninsured and boosted medical training for students, as private health providers have taken over the services previously run by LSU.
"We're confident that this has been the right solution for Louisiana," Jindal's health secretary, Kathy Kliebert, told lawmakers.
Jindal has visited health care facilities in Baton Rouge and Lafayette to tout the contracts, and the governor is expected to visit additional sites as he seeks to showcase benefits of dismantling the state's long-revered, public hospital system.
"We are in the middle of a new era for health care for our state, one that's going to improve health care, reduce costs for our patients and taxpayers and better educate the doctors of tomorrow," the Republican governor said this month at the opening of a new LSU urgent care center in Baton Rouge, operated by Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
Jindal chose to impose most of a federal Medicaid financing reduction to the state on the LSU health care system, pushing privatization as a way to cut costs.
The LSU System had operated 10 hospitals around the state and their network of outpatient clinics. Outsourcing agreements have been worked out for nine of the hospitals and their clinics. LSU plans to run one hospital in Tangipahoa Parish.
University hospitals in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles have been shuttered, with their services transferred to other private hospitals in the area. Management of three LSU hospitals around south Louisiana was turned over to entities that run other nearby private hospitals.
Similar arrangements will take effect at other LSU hospitals over the next few months, with the deals expected to be complete by mid-2104. The administration estimates the state will save more than $100 million this year from the arrangements that it calls "partnerships."
"Our charity hospital did tremendous work for decades, but we recognized we needed to change the way we operate," Jindal said.
Jindal and Kliebert say the privatization deals are giving the uninsured better access to specialty services, lessened wait times and expanded care offerings, replacing weekslong waits for prescriptions to be filled and months-long delays for needed surgeries.
They say the numbers of graduate medical education residents have grown in Lafayette, a breast health clinic and a cardiology clinic have been added at LSU's outpatient clinic site in Lake Charles, and a new psychiatry residency program is being added in Baton Rouge.
Longtime LSU patient Brenda Davis, 51, attended the opening of the new Baton Rouge clinic. Davis, who has cancer in her lungs, said she receives the same level of care and compassion she received at the now-closed Earl K. Long Medical Center, but that things run more efficiently with Our Lady of the Lake in charge.
"People need to know the good side of the change. It's been very positive. I thank God that it's still here, because they could have shut the doors down," she said.
Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, had criticized the Jindal administration as shoving through the privatization plans without enough community input or adequate assurances patients would get the same level of care.
Now, months since Earl K. Long closed, Broome said gaps remain in transportation and mental health care. But she said she hasn't gotten many complaints from her constituents.
"I think they're moving in the right direction, but we can't afford to relax," Broome said.
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