New Orleans, La. — The Jefferson Parish Council voted unanimously Wednesday to do away with a 1990's requirement that a referendum be held before the parish's two hospitals are leased.
East Jefferson Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Centers employ close to 5,000 people, and hospital executives told the council that the medical facilities will be in dire straits unless they are turned over to private operators.
"If we do not get a partnership system structure, West Jefferson - and East Jefferson, for that matter - will have no choice but to cut services and lay people off. This lease transaction is truly the best way for us to preserve jobs" said West Jefferson CEO Nancy Cassagne.
East Jefferson Hospital officials agreed. They said cash reserves are dwindling because of the almost constant need to buy new medical equipment.
"Our cash position has deteriorated since Katrina," said East Jefferson Hospital CEO Mark Peters.
Supporters of leasing the hospitals warned the council that time is not on their side, as the marketplace is ripe for more changes.
"Today is a very important milestone to posture us to be in a very successful position to remain the first-round draft pick of the suitors," said Sheriff Newell Normand, who chairs the East Jefferson Hospital Board.
The companies vying to lease the parish's hospitals include the Ochsner Health System, HCA (which runs Tulane Medical Center and Lakeside Hospital) and the Louisiana Children's Medical Center (which operates Children's Hospital, Touro Infirmary, and the LSU Interim Hospital in New Orleans).
"As a business decision, this is a sound business decision," said Harry Cahill, chair of the West Jefferson Medical Center Board.
But individual citizens stepped up and urged the council against disallowing a public vote on the issue.
"You were elected by the people of Jefferson Parish and we are your employers... we've already told you not to mess with our hospitals," said resident Johnny Carroll.
Other residents said that having the hospitals leased to private entities will not stop layoffs, and they fear older doctors could be pushed out.
"There's no reason to believe that they would keep their current staff at any of the hospitals to any great extent. They would cut jobs," said another resident.
Some opponents also argued that, instead of leasing the two parish-owned hospitals, a better way to go would be to consolidate their two boards, so the hospitals would not be competing against each other. But Normand said that option was weighed before getting to this point.
Others questioned whether a lease would really benefit the sick.
"What about the poor people? Are they going to be guaranteed admittance in these hospitals?" asked resident Dalton Joseph.
"Are they going to be denied services to our hospitals? No, absolutely not," responded Councilman Paul Johnston.
In the end, the council said yes to wiping out the referendum requirement for leasing the hospitals. Voter approval would still be needed for a sale of the hospitals.
Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said she took her signal from hospital employees.
"I have yet to be contacted by one of those people who's in opposition to what's going on today," she said.
"Relieved... everybody knows it's the right thing to do," said Cahill after the vote.
Normand said the two hospital boards hope to choose one of the contenders by late August or early September. Then the council would have to give its approval to the lease agreement.
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