Jefferson council asks HCA to come back to the table

The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday formally asked national hospital company HCA to get back in the running to operate East Jefferson General Hospital. Members hope to entice the company to reverse course on a months-old decision that has left the parish-owned hospital without a private partner who could help ease its financial struggles.

The request, which passed unanimously, came amid new wrangling over the process of leasing West Jefferson Medical Center to LCMC Health and new requirements that both public hospitals provide more information to the council on their financial status.

Council members also told the board of the East Jefferson hospital to draw up a plan and a timeline for finding a partner.

It’s not clear that HCA, which dropped out of the process earlier this year, will reconsider its decision. When Sheriff Newell Normand, who chairs the East Jefferson hospital board, asked the council for such a measure last month, a company spokesman responded by saying, “We are not now, nor do we plan to re-engage, in this process.”

The process of finding private partners for the parish’s public hospitals has been ongoing for almost two years. It stalled largely over West Jefferson’s preference for LCMC to run the medical centers while East Jefferson supported HCA. That led to months of arguments by the boards and members of the council over which firm to choose and whether to lease the hospitals as a single unit or split them up.

Both HCA and Ochsner Health System, which was also in the running, eventually dropped their bids for East Jefferson, citing the length of the process, and the hospital’s path to finding a partner remains unclear. West Jefferson, on the other hand, was granted permission to begin negotiating with LCMC.

Shades of those previous disputes reared their heads Wednesday, as council members debated a measure that would make financial consultant Josh Nemzoff a member of the team negotiating the West Jefferson lease. Nemzoff, who was hired by the council to help analyze the companies’ bids, had said HCA’s offer and financial stability outstripped those of its rivals and that its withdrawal meant the parish lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the wake of that analysis, the West Jefferson hospital board and its supporters on the council have been skeptical of putting Nemzoff on the negotiating team, which also will include lawyers specializing in mergers and acquisitions and antitrust lawyers.

The council voted 4-3 in favor of adding Nemzoff to the team. Voting in favor were council members Paul Johnston, Cynthia Lee-Sheng, Mark Spears and Ben Zahn, all of whom supported HCA’s bid for East Jefferson. Elton Lagasse, Chris Roberts and Ricky Templet, who fought to lease both hospitals to LCMC, opposed it.

“I think it was very clear to everyone that Mr. Nemzoff did not necessarily have a very favorable opinion of LCMC,” Roberts said. “To me and to anyone with any degree of sense, when you look at forcing him into this transaction, that’s forcing an agenda.”

Supporters of Nemzoff said his firm was cheaper than alternatives and was specifically dedicated to financial consulting, rather than being a more general law firm or consulting firm.

West Jefferson CEO Nancy Cassange said Nemzoff was ranked fifth out of five choices of firms that could be hired, with several of the other companies representing law firms that could bring in outside advisers on finance and other matters on an as-needed basis.

The council also expressed support for having both hospitals provide regular reports on their finances to the council. Parish officials suggested such reports would likely be discussed during executive sessions under a state law that allows public hospitals to avoid disclosing some strategic information.

“We need to monitor this more closely than we have in the past,” said Roberts, who pushed for the additional reports.