State closing two area health units

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 5, 2000

DANIEL TYLER GOODEN / L’Observateur / August 5, 2000

LUTCHER – Health units in Lutcher and Edgard will soon close.

That’s because the Department of Health and Hospitals, the biggest government agency in the state, has been ordered by the Legislature to cut back its operations.

St. James Parish President Dale Hymel Jr. informed the parish council lastweek that the DHH had ordered the closing of 25 health units, including the Lutcher facility. Hymel said he was appalled by Legislature’s decision andwould try every avenue to keep the unit open.

“I’m not too confident. Their minds seem to be made up,” Hymel said. “Weshould have been brought in much earlier. Now we’re fighting an uphill battle.” News of the DHH downsizing was released July 28.

David Hood, DHH secretary, informed senators and representatives that as mandated by the administration and Legislature they were committed to reducing the size of their agency. His added their goal was to eliminateduplication, consolidate some services, streamline wherever possible and look for less expensive service delivery.

The criteria for determining which health units should be closed was population, size, age, utilization ratio, percentage of poverty, parish contributions and geographical barriers to access on the east and west banks. All health unit closures in the state had more than one unit in theirparish. All parishes still have at least one unit left.With this criteria in mind, the St. James Parish Council was confused to whythe Lutcher Health Unit is closing. The parish owns the building the healthunit is housed in, and all utilities and insurance are paid for by the parish. Theparish even pays DHH $50,000 annually to keep the unit in operation.

The Lutcher Health Unit attends to more than 8,200 patients a year, while the Vacherie unit sees slightly less at 6,900. Considering the poverty issue,St. James Parish has the highest unemployment rate in the New Orleansmetro area and roughly the third highest in the state at 12.5 percentunemployed.

“It doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense,” said Hymel.

The parish utilizes the Lutcher Health Unit extensively, said Dianne Brathwaite, director of human resources. “All our Headstart kids get alltheir immunization shots there, as well as all our staff,” she reported to the council. All the staff and 225 children get their shots annually, including theirTuberculosis shots.

The unit used to give the shots out free but recently started charging $20 per child, if uninsured. It also charged $10 for a follow up if required. “Wejust found out about this,” said Brathwaite.

Gov. Mike Foster commended DHH for its plan, saying, “The plan they havedeveloped preserves services but at a lower cost to the taxpayer.” Hoodagreed that while the plan does not devastate services, it will have an impact on the people.

With such assurances stated, Brathwaite wonders why she can’t get hearing and vision tests for her kids in the parish. The Lutcher unit used to do all thevision and hearing tests, but last year that service was cut. The Headstartpersonnel were told to take the children to the Thibodaux Health Unit.

Thursday, Brathwaite was informed the Thibodaux Health Unit would no longer be offering that service either. The tests are vital.”We didn’t put money in the budget (for vision and hearing tests). Maybe wecan go back and rebudget,” Brathwaite said downheartedly.

Along with immunizations and, until recently, vision and hearing tests, the Lutcher Health Unit provided a large variety of services, including family planning, maternity, STDs, WICK, epidemiology, child health screenings, vital records and a host of others.

“We do a little bit of everything every day,” said one staff member. “We doa tremendous amount of STD and family planning. Maternity is right up thereas well. We need both parish units to do this.”The strategies the DHH used in downsizing were reducing administrative expenses by 25 percent, reducing the amount of leased office space and consolidate services into one location, consolidating facilities in parishes where there were multiple locations of the same service, restricting acquisitions and supplies, reducing the number of in-patient beds by creating a stronger network of out-patient services, closing services that could be administered by other agencies and moving more people who live in institutions into lower cost, community-based services.

The staffing will be reduced by 976 positions. The plan is designed to save$50 million, including $18.7 million in state funds.Hymel assured the council the parish would find a way to continue services for its citizens. New transportation routes from the east bank to theVacherie Health Unit will be added. Also, Hymel said St. James Hospital hadbeen contacted to see if it could assist in constructing a primary health unit at the Lutcher unit location. Due to the importance of the health unit on theeast bank, Hymel assured the council he would make sure every resident needing services will be assisted.

The council passed a resolution to request the DHH to reconsider their plans to close the Lutcher Health Unit.

No information on the numbers of patients seen at the Edgard Health Unit, or response to the closure, was available at press time.

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