Top doc says quit pretending

BATON ROUGE – Bayou Region health care providers were among crowds gathered at the state capitol last week urging lawmakers to protect hospitals and clinics from falling off the edge of Louisiana’s fiscal cliff.

By the time the 2018 regular session ended, however, progress had been made, and a budget branded “draconian” by opponents was sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who vetoed the bill.

Lawmakers will now begin a second special session, with many hoping to derail spending cuts that threatened nursing homes, hospitals and other health facilities.

Among speakers addressing the providers and their supporters last week was Dr. Rebekah Gee, Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals.

“It’s play pretend over there, pretend this and pretend that. I don’t get to deal with pretend, I take my job seriously,” Gee said, as she spoke to members of the Louisiana Primary Care Association, the non-profit organization whose members represent federally qualified health centers.

The LPCA membership gathered on May 16th in Baton Rouge, to take part in empowerment sessions, and to lobby state lawmakers while they were in session.

Gee accused members of the legislature (primarily the House because that’s where all revenue measures start), of pretending the state has more money in its coffers than what actually exists.

“They said we used “scare tactics” but what are we supposed to do when they say they’re not raising any money and there are going to be no new taxes? These are real people and real lives. It’s not pretend,” Gee said.

“I really believe if this governor was a Republican, the budget would have been balanced, and the state would see its largest tax savings ever,” she said.

Locally, Teche Action Clinic and the Start Corporation, are members of the LPCA. They are the area’s two FQHC’s that depend on federal funds for core operations.

If state lawmakers make huge cuts into Mental Health Programs however, those cuts could cost both community health centers millions.

Teche Action Clinic operates two clinics in Terrebonne Parish — one in Houma and the other in Dulac, and two in Lafourche, one in Thibodaux and the other in Galliano. They have eight other sites, but they were the first community health center in the Terrebonne/Lafourche area, and the first to open in the state, in 1974, in Franklin.

William Brent, chief financial officer, said mental health cuts could cost his clinics $1 to $1.5 million. Teche was the state’s first community health center, its main campus opened in Franklin in 1974.

The Start Corporation operates a Community Health Center in Houma, but has offices in Thibodaux, and other areas, where they serve other needs.

Trudy Franks, program director of the community health center, said their FQHC serves a huge mentally ill patient population.

“What happens to them? Jail? A hospital?” Franks asked.

Catherine Broussard, Start Compliance Director, said the community will suffer because of an inability to receive services.

“We’re talking 2,000 or more patients who will not receive care,” she said.

Gee asked the LPCA members if they are tired of the juxtaposition the legislature has caused.

“Tell them you are fed up. Tell them you’re watching how they vote. Take it upon yourself to voice your concerns to your local newspaper and other media. Tell them to quit playing in the sandbox and start dealing with real problems,” she said.

State Sen. Bret Allain, who represents a portion of Terrebonne Parish and a small portion of Lafourche, said Gee has testified in the Senate several times this year about her budget.

Allain, a Republican, is a member of the Senate Finance Committee. He said the Department of Health consumes $14 billion of a $29 billion state budget, thus, almost half of the money the state spends is on health.

In regards to tackling the fiscal cliff, the senator believes Senate Finance has pretty well defined the budget hole that needs to be filled.

“We actually passed a resolution that gave the house several revenue options to fill the budget hole, with half a penny being one of the solutions. I think if we present to the people that we want to go from a current 5 percent sales tax to a 4.5 percent tax in the future, most will think that idea is a win, and I would support that proposition.

“In short, we do need to raise some revenue to plug the hole we have defined, because if we don’t, state government will not be able to function at the level that our people expect it to,” Allain said.

Gerrelda Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Primary Care Association, said as the state budget process moves forward, Community Health Centers and their patients are keeping a close eye on events at the Capitol.

“Health centers are proud of the role they continue to play in the health and well-being of communities across our state. But, if Louisiana ever wants to rise from the bottom in health outcomes, it will take the concerted effort of everyone involved – especially our elected officials,” Davis said.

“We urge Gov. Edwards and members of the legislature to find compromise and work together, in the best interest of our state, to avoid devastating cuts to healthcare,” she said.

“Everyone, no matter their political party, deserves access to healthcare. It is time to leave partisan politics at the door – Louisiana’s future and the health of its citizens are at stake.”

Louisiana Capital