APG/OLOL Health Unit agreement deferred, state provider warns services duplication

Dr. Janzlean Laughinghouse

Dr. Janzlean Laughinghouse, Executive Director of Capital Area Human Services District, appeared before Ascension’s Parish Council to address the agreement whereby Our Lady of the Lake (OLOL) Hospital would take over the parish’s Health Unit and Mental Health Unit.  Dr. Laughinghouse, lauding the potential expansion of services promised by OLOL’s Dr. Chris Trevino’s January 9 presentation to the council Finance Committee, argued against the duplication of services already provided by her organization.

“We are embedded in the community and we have to be here legislatively…to provide mental health, substance and developmental disability services in a seven-parish region (including Ascension).  We are embedded in the schools with our social workers,” she said, adding that the District takes part in “judicially-involved programs.”

The District serves 1,700 Ascension citizens, with 10,000 “services” provided in an unspecified time frame according to Dr. Laughinghouse.  250 of those served are children.

Councilman Aaron Lawler, claiming to have spoken with parish Health/Mental Health employees, stated that patients are being turned away due to a lack of employees, “and they have been for the past year.”  Supposedly, no new hires are being made as the proposed OLOL agreement details are finalized.  Had it come from a more credible source, any credibility Lawler may have had is long in the rearview, the claim would have been taken more seriously.

Councilman Michael Mason, the voice of reason more times than one might expect, recommended referral of those needy citizens to Capital Area Human Services District.

Consideration of the OLOL agreement was deferred to the next council meeting on February 2 in Donaldsonville.

OLOL’s Dr. Chris Trevino

Earlier this month the Council Finance Committee (comprised of the full council) recommended the 12-page Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA), the stated purpose of which is “to ensure adequate public health and mental health services,” assuming that OLOL is better capable of operating the parish facilities than Ascension Parish Government.  No argument here.

The parish will “pay OLOL $360,772 per month during the first 12 months” from the CEA’s effective date, anticipated to be $4,329,259 over the course of the year.  That would cover expanded services to include new services on the west bank, new Mobile and Children’s Health Services while accommodating more patients than are currently being served.

“We are the wealthiest parish, highest income per capita, and yet we have one of the poorest cities,” OLOL’s Dr. Chris Trevino referenced the City of Donaldsonville in his opening remarks to Finance.  “It’s been a failure on my part, to not be more aggressive on the west bank…This agreement fixes that.”

Donaldsonville’s Councilman Alvin “Coach” Thomas initially sought to defer the matter, urging Dr. Trevino to consult Prevost Memorial Hospital Administrator Vince Cataldo.  This is not the first turf war fought over Prevost Hospital.  Thomas’ council predecessor led the effort to divert half of the hospital’s annual tax revenue to an ill-conceived attempt to “redistribute the current one half percent sales and use tax” funding Prevost.  In 2017 District 1 Councilman Oliver Joseph wanted to create West Ascension Recreation Facilities District #1 by diverting half of the hospital tax revenue.

The argument, that Prevost had banked in the neighborhood of $20 million without sufficient account to satisfy the council, failed to convince the electorate.  West bank voters rejected the plan with 58% opting to maintain the status quo on November 6, 2018.

“(Vince Cataldo) has a very strong concern that his size make him vulnerable,” Dr. Trevino explained.  “I don’t want to be the guy…to impose his will” on the smaller facility.

Trevino also recognized the obligation to the underserved patients on the west bank, and the east bank for that matter.  “We have the facilities and the entity to provide it so, I have to be more aggressive…I’d love to work with Vince.”

But OLOL can go it alone if need be, even without Ascension Parish’s money and 15 employees it agrees to take from Health and Mental Health pursuant to the CEA.  Those employees were represented at Finance, strenuously arguing for their retained status with the parish which provides substantial benefits not always available in the private sector.

According to the agreement’s terms those employees would “transition to” OLOL unless they are within five years of retirement.  An amendment to the CEA increased the operative period to ten years.  Councilman Thomas was joined by Joel Robert, Dempsey Lambert and Teri Casso in seeking the accommodation added without dissent.

Councilman Chase Melancon framed the issue differently, recognizing “it’s gonna be tough to guarantee every employee every parish benefit” in perpetuity.  Will employees’ interests be put before those of underserved citizens?

“This is a huge issue for me,” Melancon, whose family experienced a mental health tragedy, said.  “It’s the one area of Ascension Parish Government where our money outweighs our vision.  (The Council is) not capable of spending this money properly.”

Nearing $20 million combined in two funds, Mental Health and the Health Unit benefit from four mills (two mills each) worth of Ad Valorem taxes annually.  Estimated to generate over $6 million.