House OKs bill shifting hospital cash from N.O.

By Jan Moller
http://www.nola.com

BATON ROUGE — A House committee unanimously approved legislation Wednesday designed to shift health-care dollars from New Orleans to other regions of the state.

But faced with opposition from New Orleans-area lawmakers, Senate Bill 402 was rewritten by the House Health and Welfare Committee to ensure that the shift will not take place without further approval by the Legislature.

The bill by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, directs the Department of Health and Hospitals to work with Louisiana State University to develop a formula for dividing Medicaid “uncompensated care” payments among the state’s public hospitals and that takes the population of each region into account.

Cassidy, a physician who practices at LSU’s Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge, said the bill is aimed at correcting what he sees as a funding imbalance between New Orleans and other South Louisiana hospitals. “I’m not trying to cheat anyone. I’m trying to end the cheating,” said Cassidy, who described charity care in New Orleans as “fat and happy” compared to other regions.

But critics said it would take critical health-care dollars away from New Orleans at a time when the region is still trying to rebuild health services decimated by Hurricane Katrina and would jeopardize efforts to build a new flagship teaching hospital downtown.

“There’s an old saying: You don’t kick a dog when it’s down,” said Dino Paternostro, a lobbyist for the economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc.

As it came to the committee, the bill called for having a new financing formula for indigent care in place by Feb. 1, with the formula taking effect no later than November 2009. Rural hospitals, psychiatric hospitals and charity hospitals in Alexandria, Monroe and Shreveport would be exempt from the bill, meaning it would only apply to seven public hospitals in the southern part of the state: LSU Interim Hospital in New Orleans, Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center in Independence, Walter O. Moss Regional Medical Center in Lake Charles, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, Bogalusa Medical Center and University Medical Center in Lafayette.

According to Cassidy’s figures, the New Orleans region gets more than twice as much money per uninsured resident as other regions of the state. Defenders of the system said that is because the Medical Center of Louisiana-New Orleans does more complex, expensive procedures, such as cancer treatment and heart surgeries, than other hospitals in the LSU system.

After the committee deadlocked 8-8, stalling the bill, Rep. Fred Mills Jr., D-St. Martinville, added an amendment that takes out the implementation date.

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Jan Moller can be reached at jmoller@timespicayune.com or (225) 342-5207

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