Poor Losers In Health Policy

Some health care services for Louisiana’s poor continue to be reduced or eliminated, but the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal keeps telling them everything will be OK. And when anyone finds fault, officials with the state Department of Health and Hospitals insist the gloom-and-doom forecasters simply don’t have all the facts.

What we do know as fact is the LSU Health Care Services Division has to deal with $29 million in midyear budget cuts. Employees will be laid off, the number of hospital beds will be reduced, and some medical services will be discontinued.

W.O. Moss Regional Medical Center in Lake Charles has to deal with $2.3 million of those budget cuts. Officials there said last week that translates to eliminating Moss’ pediatric and psychiatric units and laying off 10 employees. Some of the employees might be relocated in the state system, but they won’t be here.

“We’re pretty lean,” said Jimmy Pottorff, the hospital’s interim administrator. “When we have a cut, it really digs deep.”

Mary Morris, a local activist, said, “Without charity at Moss Regional, many of the people in our community would not have an opportunity for services. With $29 million, it would seem they could find that. We spend that on streets and pavement …”

University Medical Center in Lafayette is facing similar challenges, according to a report in the Lafayette Advertiser. Parents and others rallied outside the medical center Thursday. Passing motorists cheered and honked their horns in support, the newspaper said.

A grandmother to two young boys being treated for Asperger’s syndrome at UMC, spoke for many with similar problems.

“We’ve come over to tell them, ‘Please don’t close it (the pediatrics department) because we need it,’” Patty Cosper said. “We waited three months to get in to see a doctor, and if they close it, we will have nowhere to go.”

Mid-year budget cuts always come down hard on higher education and health care because those are two major unprotected areas of the budget. These current problems could have been avoided if Gov. Jindal and the state Senate had gone along with $200 million in budget reductions made by the House last spring. Cuts at that time would have been smaller because they would have been spread among more agencies.

The governor and his Senate allies said the state couldn’t afford those cuts at the time, so they used onetime money for ongoing expenses to increase spending. Over $300 million in one-time money financed health care spending in the current state budget, and now that decision is coming home to roost.

Reps. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, and Jim Morris, R-Oil City, got the House to pass a resolution last spring requiring two-thirds approval before one-time money could be used for expenses that continue year in and year out. The rule was approved 60-42, and the first time it was used the House voted 88-11 against using one-time money.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans said before the two-thirds rule was approved that it “has the administration in an uproar.”

The Associated Press reported at the end of the 2011 legislative session that the Senate played “a vast shell game” to skirt the rule.

“With a series of sleight-of-hand maneuvering, the Senate worked with the governor’s financial advisers to match up one-time money with items that don’t crop up every year, shifting dollars around agencies and tapping into more one-time funds while keeping to the spirit of the new House (Geymann-Morris) rule,” the AP said.

No one in the administration said Geymann would have to pay for pushing the rule, but you don’t buck the governor’s team and get off scot-free. Ask those who have felt the stings of its wrath.

Geymann hasn’t complained, but it appears his legislative skills and influence were completely overlooked when this year’s committee assignments and leadership decisions were made. He was elected by his area colleagues to be on the House Appropriations Committee, but it was probably the only way he could get there. His only other assignment was on the Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

Geymann also serves on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget by virtue of his seat on appropriations. Last year, he was on the Appropriations, House and Governmental Affairs, Joint Budget and Retirement committees.

Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, made the committee assignments, but Gov. Jindal made it crystal clear last year he would have a heavy hand in deciding which legislators served where. You can be sure that is where the administration had its chance to remind Geymann where this state’s political power lies.

The real losers in this whole episode are the poor who are served by the state’s charity hospital system. The Jindal administration won’t agree, but the odds are these mid-year cuts wouldn’t be happening if the one-time money rule had been strictly followed by the Senate during last year’s budget debate.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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