Our Lady of the Lake tries to make best of imperfect transition from LSU Health

POSTED: Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 6:30pm

UPDATED: Friday, March 1, 2013 - 10:30am

No matter how many steps Our Lady of the Lake takes to protect health care in Baton Rouge, some patients are bound to suffer.

Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital will close its doors April 15.

Even though LSU started the transition process in 2010, there has been lots of confusion among patients about how the partnership will work.

Because income levels went up in Louisiana relative to the rest of the country, the state lost $329 million in federal funding for health care.

"That caused about a 24 percent, across the board, cut to services for the LSU public hospital system," said Dr. Frank Opelka, Vice President for Health Care and Medical Education Redesign. "And what we wanted to maintain was care for the uninsured, care for the high-risk Medicaid patients, care for prisoners, and our role in maintaining the graduate medical education and the workforce for health care for the state."

So LSU began looking for private, non-profit hospitals to take over its operations, and found a willing, familiar partner in Our Lady of the Lake.

"We want to make sure that the citizens of Baton Rouge, those that are insured or underinsured, have the access to great care," said Terrie Sterling, COO of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, "and that our families don't have to leave home and go to Houston, or go to Birmingham."

Our Lady of the Lake has been working with LSU for a long time. It started hosting rotations for LSU medical students after Katrina, and quietly took over LSU's pediatric services ten years ago.

"In that time, we now have a pediatric residency program; we have the largest group of specialists in the state, outside of New Orleans," Sterling said.

Our Lady of the Lake is building a new heart and vascular building, but it does not anticipate struggling for space to accommodate patients who would currently utilize Earl K. Long.

Earl K. Long receives approximately 30 inpatient visits per day; Our Lady of the Lake receives roughly 500.

"We have about 30-45 additional patients who we see during flu season anyway," Sterling said. "So we really don't see a great challenge." 

Our Lady of the Lake is also building a brand new medical education center, with expanded classroom and auditorium space. It believes that providing a bigger, high-tech facility for students is good, not just for itself, but for health care in the whole region.

"The research says that a doctor stays, more than 50 percent of doctors stay within a hundred-mile radius of where they were trained," Sterling said. "And we can't be a great medical center without doctors."

One piece not included in the transfer agreement is general prisoner care. Our Lady of the Lake will take a few patients with extraordinary needs, but the inmates who used to go to Earl K. Long will now go to Lallie Kemp Medical Center in Independence.

But people in north Baton Rouge will necessarily see a small decline in their quality of care. Baton Rouge General Mid City is the closest hospital to Earl K. Long, six miles away. In the other direction, Lane Memorial in Zachary is 13 miles away. People with serious medical trauma will have to spend extra time in an ambulance, waiting for care at the hospital.

"No matter whether you're uninsured or insured," Opelka said, "everyone has health and health care issues. So everyone, you want to know that everyone has access to health care when they need it."

To help fill the gap, a 24/7 urgent care center is under construction at the north Baton Rouge clinic on Airline Highway. It is scheduled to open in June, and will be able to serve 70 percent of the people who previously visited Earl K. Long's emergency room. But there is unused space inside the clinic, so a temporary operation is being put together that will open April 1, before the hospital closes.

All of LSU's clinics will remain open in their current locations. But this is not a typical merger: LSU is laying off all 834 of its local employees, and Our Lady of the Lake is treating those jobs as if they were brand new.

"We opened more than 400 jobs for all positions that are currently existing in the clinics, as well as in the hospital," Sterling said. "We've actually had 2,400 applicants."

Governor Jindal recently said he expected 90 percent of the physicians laid of across the LSU system to find new jobs with private hospitals.

Sterling said some of LSU's doctors, nurses, and staff have already been hired on. Some decided this was a good time to retire or change careers. But the rest will join patients in wondering if modern health care is an improvement for Baton Rouge.

For more information of the transfer of services between LSU and Our Lady of the Lake, visit www.transitionlsuhealthbr.com. For a visual representation of the locations of LSU clinics and services, click on the two files attached at the bottom of this article.

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Comments News Comments

There is no intention for the Jindal administration to ensure quality care, particularly since many patients will have trouble even getting to OLOL. By treating the jobs and employees as new they will also be able to pay them less and give them fewer benefits and job security than the employees got with the state. So it is a win/win for OLOL as they get experienced workers for less money.

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