APPEL: Where Was Louisiana’s Medical Stockpile Before The Virus Hit?

I served in the state Senate for 11 years. In that time I cannot recall even once that anyone in the Louisiana Department of Health (or its predecessor the Department of Health and Hospitals), The Governor’s Office of Emergency Planning (GOSEP), or any other agency of government telling the legislature that we didn’t have a strategic medical (or any other type) reserve or, if such existed, that it was under supplied. Not once did these trusted experts alert us to the danger of not having a powerful strategy to employ if a medical emergency overtook us.

To be fair this issue goes back over many governors and many department heads. Further it is possible that the legislative committees on Health could have been so informed and the word just didn’t come to other legislators.

As we now know this human failure compounded what nature threw at us. Clearly, we didn’t have even enough of the basics, such as Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), on hand to prepare us for a statewide medical emergency. And even more clear is that we didn’t have long lead items like ventilators on hand to help our people survive. Another parallel issue is that it appears that there was no strategic plan for a medical catastrophe such as COVID19. There was no plan to implement an expert medical czar who would have strong powers even over private hospitals. There was no plan to support rural hospitals. There was no plan to implement quarantine, no trigger to shut down major public events. There was no plan to stand up emergency hospitals, no plan to recruit retired medical workers, no plan for anything. The only plan seems to have been to react to problems, instead of being pro-active. We have reacted in many of these areas, but how much time and how many lives have been lost?

Perhaps I am being too negative, but I don’t think so. We now have some of the highest case rates and death rates in the world. And yet we are begging the Federal government to send us basic supplies from their stockpile. The governor has done a good job in reacting to this disaster, but his agencies and their experts have let him and us down. We just weren’t ready.

The most damning element of this failure of government is funding. The budget for LDH, particularly since Medicaid Expansion, has been roughly one half of state spending. That is, we spend on healthcare alone tens of billions of dollars per year. And we know from investigations that hundreds of millions of dollars have been stolen, wasted, or mismanaged. What a difference it would have made had but a small percentage of that spending been planned for and set aside for catastrophic emergencies.

Other than the fact that the “Buck Stops Here” for all governors, I don’t blame Governor Edwards. He had people in place that he trusted to develop strategies and advise him on needs. Apparently, none of them did so and we are all the worse for it. However, I will blame him if, when this is over, he doesn’t investigate the failure of his department leadership and send many of them packing. People have died, our economy is in collapse, and we didn’t have basic medical supplies or plans.

The experts that exacerbated our misery need to go and be replaced by competent staff and leaders.

One more thing. It is incumbent on the legislature to utilize its oversight obligation to investigate this disaster. It would not be uncommon for a governor to sweep the failures of his administration under the rug, so we desperately need a separate investigation by a neutral third party, in our case the Legislature. And, this investigation should involve both Houses of the Legislature, both Parties, and be a special body, not the Health Committees.

Nothing would have stopped Coronavirus (though time will tell if Mardi Gras should have been cancelled); but we could have been far more prepared to succor our people. There is no excuse for not having a strategy or for not having supplies.

The governor has done a good job being a reactive leader, but there is not any reason that we were deprived of pro-active leadership. The people working for the governor dropped the ball, and no matter how well he performs that will always be a black mark on his legacy.

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