Judges hear dispute over Louisiana charity hospital closure
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — More than two years after central Louisiana’s publicly owned charity hospital was closed, a legal dispute remains unsettled about whether state senators violated the law in agreeing to shutter the facility.
A three-judge appeals court panel heard arguments Tuesday in a 2014 lawsuit accusing the Louisiana Senate of flouting the open meetings law in its handling of legislation authorizing then-Gov. Bobby Jindal to close the LSU-run hospital in Pineville, the Huey P. Long Medical Center.
Lawyers representing a public hospital patient, an employees union and former workers at the facility argue the Senate gave too few hours’ notice for the public to weigh in on the hospital closure, and a state district judge agreed the process was improper.
“They denied the rights to these people to be heard,” said attorney Chris Roy Sr.
The Senate and LSU appealed the decision to Louisiana’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, with their attorneys saying senators followed the law and their internal rules.
“This was not a cloak and dagger situation,” said lawyer John Parker Jr., representing LSU.
The appeals court panel didn’t immediately rule, though two of the judges appeared skeptical about second-guessing the lawmakers. They cited a provision in the open meetings law that gives the House and Senate exceptions from certain notice requirements during legislative sessions and allows them to craft their own rules.
“They promulgated a rule that allows them to do exactly what they did,” said Judge John Michael Guidry.
Judge John Pettigrew seemed to agree.
“If they did it in the context of the rules, there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. But Pettigrew also suggested he didn’t think the Senate handled it well, adding later: “It sure does smell what they did in this case.”
The hospital closed on June 30, 2014, as Jindal privatized safety-net health services around Louisiana. The central Louisiana deal shifted services offered at Huey P. Long to nearby private hospitals, CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital and Rapides Regional Medical Center.
The House and Senate agreed to the hospital shutdown in the 2014 legislative session.
The lawsuit alleged the Senate Health and Welfare Committee didn’t provide the required advance notice to allow for public comment on the closure. The committee published a meeting notice two days before its scheduled hearing, but the hospital legislation wasn’t listed on that agenda. It was added late in the afternoon the day before the meeting.
If the lawsuit challenging the hospital closure is successful, it’s unclear what would happen.
Attorney J. Arthur Smith III, representing the plaintiffs, said it would be impractical to expect the hospital could be reopened. But he’d like to see another use of the state facility and wants the laid-off hospital workers to be offered other state jobs. More than 500 people worked at the hospital in the years before its closure.
“I would think they would be entitled to back pay and to be restored to employment,” Smith said.
Using no-bid contracts, Jindal privatized nine state-owned charity hospitals that cared for Louisiana’s poor and uninsured over 2013 and 2014. Previously, the facilities had been run by LSU. In most instances, the management company of a nearby hospital took over operations. Three hospitals — in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Pineville — closed and their services were shifted to private hospitals.
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