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Deeper cuts coming to LSU public hospitals

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The LSU governing board backed a plan Thursday to deepen cuts to $152 million for the university-run public hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured, eliminating dozens of inpatient beds, clinic services and nearly 1,500 jobs.

The cuts could threaten access to health care for some uninsured people in the high-poverty state.

The reductions, devised with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, will fall across seven south Louisiana hospitals, carving out 19 percent of the spending that had been planned for those facilities run through LSU's Health Care Services Division.

University officials say they hope that services being eliminated at the public hospitals will be picked up by private health care facilities, and that those private facilities will provide training sites for the medical students who currently work in LSU hospitals.

But few of those agreements are in place.

It's unclear where some uninsured patients will receive care when services disappear at the LSU centers in the coming weeks. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he's worried about gaps in critical services.

"We would hope that there's not, but these could be complex agreements that we have to walk though," said hospital system leader Frank Opelka. He added, "We would like to know that we can actually close these gaps as fast as possible and do these partnerships as soon as possible."

He acknowledged in questioning from lawmakers that if LSU and the Jindal administration can't get a "partner" in an area, the uninsured will have less access to medical care and difficulty getting services.

The budget slashing is in response to Jindal's decision to levy most of a federal Medicaid funding drop on the LSU health care system rather than on private providers. More cuts are expected next year.

Opelka, LSU's executive vice president for health care and medical education redesign, said the budget cuts were developed with Jindal health secretary Bruce Greenstein. The LSU Board of Supervisors approved the plans without objection. Opelka then presented them to the House and Senate health care committees.

In Baton Rouge, intensive care unit beds will be shuttered. In New Orleans, a woman's health clinic and two mobile health care units will close and surgery hours will shrink. An arthritis clinic in Lake Charles, the dermatology and neurology clinics in Houma, the ICU in Independence and the mental health clinic in Lafayette all will shut down.

Inpatient beds will shrink at every facility. At LSU's hospitals in Lake Charles, Lafayette and Tangipahoa Parish, inpatient beds will drop to 10 each, the minimum needed to keep the university's outpatient clinics open.

Opelka said some of the cuts will take effect within weeks and the layoffs will begin in January.

"Where are these people going to go?" said Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa. "I am asking who is going to provide the services? Until you can tell me that, I'm not going to be able to rest."

Opelka replied, "We wish we didn't have to cut any of the care that we have."

He repeatedly told concerned lawmakers that university leaders and Greenstein were pushing to increase access for LSU's patients at private hospitals.

"You're dismantling what you have before you have something to transition to. That concerns me greatly," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite. "I wish we weren't doing it this way."

Two New Orleans residents who said they rely on the public hospital system for care criticized the additional cuts, saying they will harm patient care and limit access for the poor and uninsured.

"Society is judged by how they treat their least-advantaged, and this board will be judged accordingly," Janet Hayes told board members before they voted on the plans. Hayes said she recently lost her job and her health insurance.

The LSU board, packed with Jindal appointees, gave Opelka and LSU System President William Jenkins the ability to make changes to the reduction plans as needed.

The plans approved Thursday don't include the LSU-run hospitals in Shreveport, Monroe and Pineville, which operate under different leadership and participated in a previous round of reductions earlier this year tied to the Jindal administration cuts.