Quick council vote on Jeff hospitals meets resistance

Some Jefferson Parish Council members are pushing back against Chairman Chris Roberts’ call to quickly choose a private company to run the parish’s two public hospitals, potentially before a parish inspector general’s report on the selection process is issued publicly.

After council members received a report Wednesday night from consultant Kaufman Hall that reluctantly recommends splitting the hospitals between two different companies, Roberts informed his colleagues by email he would be scheduling a vote as soon as the boards of both hospitals respond to the inspector general’s report. The deadline for those responses is in mid-November, though they could be sent in earlier.

Some members said taking a vote before the public can see the inspector general’s report, and before Kaufman Hall’s representatives can speak to the council, would be rushing the process.

“It’s about the fundamental fairness of a process where we’re going to live with the results for the next 30 years,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, adding council members had appeared to be in agreement on waiting for those two developments before voting. “That’s where I’ve been very frustrated with this process.”

The council has been largely consumed with the hospital issue since this summer, and the situation worsened after the boards of East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center deadlocked on a decision.

The East Jefferson board continues to recommend that HCA run both hospitals or, failing that, that the board be allowed to choose that company on its own.

At the same time, the West Jefferson board has been adamant that Children’s Hospital should run both hospitals.

Ochsner Health System was also a finalist in the process but does not have the backing of either board.

A key point of contention has been whether Kaufman Hall, the firm hired for $1.3 million by the hospital boards, should give a recommendation to the council before any action is taken.

In response to a council resolution asking the company to come to a meeting to answer questions, the firm sent a document arguing that because the two boards could not agree on a company, management of the two medical centers should be split between their boards’ preferred firms. However, the response said this would not be an “optimal” outcome for Jefferson Parish.

The company has indicated a willingness to appear before the council, something Lee-Sheng and Councilman Ben Zahn should be required before a vote is taken. Those council members, who both represent the East Bank, have been skeptical of calls to select Children’s.

Zahn said Thursday he was backing Kaufman Hall’s recommendation of splitting the hospitals.

“I fail to see the problem. It’s giving everyone what they want,” Zahn said. “Why does the West Jefferson board get to dictate everything to the people of Jefferson Parish?”

Casting votes before Kaufman Hall can speak to the council and answer questions would be “circumventing the public,” he said.

Roberts has maintained there are four votes on the council for Children’s, including him and Councilman Elton Lagasse. It’s not clear which two other council members he was referring to.

However, Councilman Paul Johnston, who previously had said he was leaning toward Children’s, solidified that stance Thursday, saying he would vote for it based on the information he has now.

Johnston, who previously supported waiting for a discussion with Kaufman Hall, said he’s now ready to vote as soon as the two hospital boards submit responses to the inspector general’s report.

After Wednesday’s response from Kaufman Hall, Johnston said he no longer has confidence in the firm’s findings. Pointing to a previous recommendation that suggested the hospitals should not be split, Johnston said the company “blows like leaves in the wind, they’ve changed direction so many times.”

Lee-Sheng called for a delay until the inspector general’s report is released and Kaufman Hall appears before the council. “That was what we all agreed upon by council resolution,” she said. “Now we’re skipping that process altogether by calling for a vote.”

Given the differences that exist between them, Lee-Sheng said, she also is considering proposals that would split the hospitals.

As council chairman, Roberts has the ability to call special meetings on his own. The only way to scuttle such a meeting would be if fewer than four members show up, preventing the council from reaching a quorum.

It’s not clear whether that meeting would come before Inspector General David McClintock publicly issues his report.

A draft version of that report called for the council to conduct simultaneous negotiations with more than one company, not with the intention of splitting the hospitals but in the interest of giving the parish more leverage in the process.

It also questioned some of the transparency of the process and the hospital boards’ use of executive sessions to discuss the issue.

McClintock’s report will not be publicly issued as soon as responses are received, however. He has said it could take some time to add those comments to the report and make adjustments.

McClintock also suggested Thursday it would be better if the council waits for the report’s release before taking action.

“One of the main functions of this office is transparency in government, and I would think there’s some value in allowing that transparency to occur,” he said.

“Allowing the report to be issued publicly is usually required to fulfill that tenet of transparency,” he said.

The latest flap over the hospital manager’s selection comes as both sides continue to try to bolster their preferred choice.

A new report by a different consultant, paid for by medical staff at East Jefferson, recommends either HCA or Ochsner be selected to take over the hospitals, largely based on their track record operating adult hospitals.

Children’s, which took over Touro Infirmary in 2009 and now runs the LSU hospital in New Orleans, has limited experience in that area, the report says.

The report, written by Kaufman Strategic Consultants and based on the proposals made by each of the companies, also gives HCA high marks for having an offer worth hundreds of millions more than its competitors.

Despite the similar names, Kaufman Strategic Associates is not affiliated with Kaufman Hall.

On Friday, Roberts distributed a New York Times story from January about a suit in which a Kansas City, Mo., community foundation won $162 million from HCA after a judge found it had failed to make improvements it promised to hospitals it acquired in 2003. Improvements to the hospitals have been a major part of the proposals put forward by each of the companies.