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“We just got the contract yesterday and we need to give people an opportunity to look at it,” said Fannin, who added that the contract was nearly 80 pages.”

—House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, explaining the reason for cancelling Thursday’s joint meeting of the Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to consider approving the contract for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBS) to take over operations of the Office of Group Benefits. The governor’s office, however, said the reason for the cancellation was that key committee members were scheduled to be out of town.

That would be an oops moment…

…and another good argument for better communications between legislators and Piyush.

“Although we can be somewhat sure that the administration will continue in its attempt to gain committee votes for approval of this effort, it is our hope that the legislature will continue to stand strong and operate as a separate, co-equal branch of government.”

—State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), in a more plausible prepared statement following cancellation of Thursday’s joint meeting of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees to consider approval of the BCBS contract to take over as third party administrator (TPA) of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB). In reality, the meeting was most likely cancelled after Gov. Piyush Jindal’s office realized it did not have the votes for approval of the contract. Jackson is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Legislators’ votes just went up in price.”

—C.B. Forgotson.

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Thursday’s scheduled joint meeting of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to consider the approval for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana to take over the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) Preferred Provider Organization health coverage has been scrubbed.

The reasons for cancelling Thursday’s meeting vary, depending upon who is doing the explaining.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro) said that he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville) agreed late Wednesday morning to remove the OGB item from the agendas of the joint meeting.

“We just got the contract (with BCBS) yesterday and we need to give people an opportunity to look at it,” said Fannin, who added that the contract was nearly 80 pages.

Fannin, who supports the privatization, admitted the vote count was close but insisted that wasn’t the reason for postponing action.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, a member of the Appropriations Committee who opposes the contract, however, interpreted the cancellation differently.

“I believe that the cancellation of this meeting indicates the legislature’s willingness to exert independence as a separate and equal branch of government,” she said, adding that she was certain that the administration would continue to apply pressure on members of both committees to come up with the needed votes.

Fanning should have gotten with the governor’s office and gotten their stories together. The two versions don’t mesh.

The word out of the governor’s office was that it has the votes already but that certain key members were scheduled to be out of town Thursday so the meeting needed to be re-scheduled.

That claim can probably be taken with a grain of salt. This is the same administration that insisted it took no active part in the day to day operations of LSU but yet insisted on reviewing any public records relative to the LSU Health Services prior to their release to Capitol News Service.

A more likely scenario is that Gov. Piyush Jindal’s staff members can count.

They saw that the votes (a simple majority is needed to approve the privatization) were not there and like NASA, aborted the mission.

For now.

Members of both committees were being lobbied heavily by both sides late Wednesday in the final hours before the meeting was finally cancelled. It’s a certainty that the pressure on the committee members will not abate—especially from the governor’s office. This is a must-win for him.

The original number of OGB personnel expected to lose their jobs with the BCBS takeover was 177 but some have already retired or found other jobs. That number is now about 150.

An important twist to the story involves the proposed layoffs. The Division of Administration is scheduled to submit a layoff plan to the Civil Service Commission in next few days but no layoff plan may be considered by the commission without an approved contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BCBS).

Without the concurrence of the two committees, however, there can be no approved contract and thus, no layoff plan.

The privatization plan (but not the layoff plan) was approved by the Civil Service Commission in August but State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) requested and got an attorney general’s opinion that said the administration must obtain the concurrence of the legislature to finalize the transfer.
BCBS already serves as the third party administrator (TPA) for OGB’s HMO program.

OGB has accrued a fund balance in excess of $500 million over the past six years since Tommy Teague took over as director of OGB. But he was fired on April 15, 2011 when he did not get on board the Jindal privatization plan quickly enough. His successor lasted only six weeks before he, too, was gone.

Jindal has claimed that a private TPA would be able to run the various health and life insurance plans of about 225,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents.

A Legislative Auditor’s report, however, said that privatization could lead to increased health insurance premiums because of a private insurer’s higher administrative and marketing costs, its requirement to pay taxes on income and its need to realize an operating profit. The state does not pay taxes nor is it required to turn a profit.

The Jindal administration has employed tactics bordering on the clandestine in efforts to shore up its position. At one point it even refused to release a report by New Orleans-based Chaffe & Associates with which it contracted to determine the “fair market value” of OGB’s business.

When a copy of the report was released, however, questions arose immediately because of conflicting dates given by the Division of Administration (DOA) as to its receipt date and by the fact that none of the pages of the report was date-stamped.

DOA routinely date stamps every page of documents it receives to indicate the date and time the documents were received.

This led to speculation that there may have been two Chaffe reports. Even so, the one that was leaked to the Baton Rouge Advocate said that a private insurer would be required to build in the extra costs of taxes and profits when setting premiums.

Much of the reason for the closer-than-expected vote may have to do with growing resentment on the part of legislators who have seen hospitals and/or prisons closed in their districts, actions they say were taken by the administration without the benefit of giving lawmakers a heads-up.

Jindal, in closing prisons and hospitals, has done so while leaving it up to area legislators to try and explain to constituents why they will be out of work or why health care will be either cut back or unavailable.

Only this week, notices went out to 41 employees at E.A. Conway Hospital in Monroe that they would no longer be employed after Nov. 30—just in time for the Christmas holidays. Twenty-five of those were nurses.

Similar cutbacks have taken place at health care facilities all over the state and in August, Jindal abruptly announced the closure of Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, effective this month, throwing some 300 employees out of work.

Moreover, with the earlier closure of a mental health facility in New Orleans, the entire area of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Tangipahoa, Washington and St. Tammany will be without access to mental health treatment at a state facility.

“The Office of Group Benefits does not cost the state any money,” Jackson said. “It is a healthy plan that has always remained viable while offering …excellent health care benefits.

“Our research has revealed that more than $70 million of the existing OGB surplus (more than $500 million) would be used to effectuate this privatization,” she said.

“The governor’s office claims that the state will realize $20 million in savings. However, this claim came without any supporting documentation even after numerous requests for that documentation.

“OGB’s administrative costs are 2 percent while the industry standard for private insurers is 6 percent. It seems that, at some point, it (the privatization) would actually cost the state additional money,” Jackson said.

http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Cmtes/H_Cmte_AP.asp

http://senate.legis.louisiana.gov/Finance/Assignments.asp

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“I believe I’d have a coronary if they went against the governor on this.”

—A longtime political observor, commenting on the upcoming joint meeting of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees to consider Gov. Piyush Jindal’s proposed privatization of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB).

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Members of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee were being lobbied heavily by both sides on Wednesday in the final hours leading up to Thursday’s joint committee meeting to consider the privatization of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits (OGB).

State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) said on Wednesday that she was concentrating on members of the House Appropriations Committee “because the concurrence of both committees is required.”

She said by mid-morning there appeared to be four undecided votes on the House committee.

“We need two votes,” she said, to block the move by Gov. Piyush Jindal. “Neither side can say it has the votes,” she added.

For those who might be interested in getting in their two-cents worth, here are the links to the names, phone numbers and email addresses for the members of each of the committees:

http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Cmtes/H_Cmte_AP.asp

http://senate.legis.louisiana.gov/Finance/Assignments.asp

The privatization, which would have Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBS) take over the operations of the agency’s Preferred Provider Organization (PPO), was approved by the State Civil Service Commission in August but State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) requested and got an attorney general’s opinion that said the administration must obtain the concurrence of the legislature to finalize the transfer.

BCBS already serves as the third party administrator (TPA) for OGB’s HMO program.

OGB has accrued a fund balance in excess of $500 million over the past six years since Tommy Teague took over as director of OGB. But he was fired on April 15, 2011 when he did not get on board the Jindal privatization plan quickly enough. His successor lasted only six weeks before he, too, was gone.

Jindal has claimed that a private TPA would be able to run the various health and life insurance plans of about 225,000 state employees, retirees and their dependents.

A Legislative Auditor’s report, however, said that privatization could lead to increased health insurance premiums because of a private insurer’s higher administrative and marketing costs, its requirement to pay taxes on income and its need to realize an operating profit. The state does not pay taxes nor is it required to turn a profit.

The Jindal administration has employed tactics bordering on the clandestine in efforts to shore up its position. At one point it even refused to release a report by New Orleans-based Chaffe & Associates with which it contracted to determine the “fair market value” of OGB’s business.

When a copy of the report was released, however, questions arose immediately because of conflicting dates given by the Division of Administration (DOA) as to its receipt date and by the fact that none of the pages of the report was date-stamped.

DOA routinely date stamps every page of documents it receives to indicate the date and time the documents were received.

This led to speculation that there may have been two Chaffe reports. Even so, the one that was leaked to the Baton Rouge Advocate said that a private insurer would be required to build in the extra costs of taxes and profits when setting premiums.

Once considered a slam-dunk for approval, the vote now appears much closer on the eve of the meeting of the two committees.

Much of the reason for the change may have to do with growing resentment on the part of legislators who have seen hospitals and/or prisons closed in their districts, actions they say were taken by the administration without the benefit of giving lawmakers a heads-up.

Jindal, in closing prisons and hospitals, has done so while leaving it up to area legislators to try and explain to constituents why they will be out of work or why health care will be either cut back or unavailable.

Only this week, notices went out to 41 employees at E.A. Conway Hospital in Monroe that they would no longer be employed after Nov. 30—just in time for the Christmas holidays. Twenty-five of those were nurses.

Similar cutbacks have taken place at health care facilities all over the state and in August, Jindal abruptly announced the closure of Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, effective this month, throwing some 300 employees out of work.

Moreover, with the earlier closure of a mental health facility in New Orleans, the entire area of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St.

Bernard, Tangipahoa, Washington and St. Tammany will be without access to mental health treatment at a state facility.

The proposed privatization of OGB will put about 120 workers out of work.

“It’s going down to the wire,” Jackson said of the vote to turn the PPO over to BCBS. “It’s going to be close.”

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Thursday’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Health and Welfare was a critical meeting in that committee members were considering massive cutbacks to the LSU healthcare system and the impending layoffs of nearly 1500 employees at seven of the 10 hospitals in the LSU system.

One might think that a meeting such as this might important enough to merit the testimony of Bobby Yarborough, member and former chairman of the LSU Board of Supervisors.

One would be wrong.

Yarborough, who also served as campaign finance chairman for Jindal’s re-election campaign last year (he’s a busy man), might also have spoken up in his capacity as chairman of the University Medical Center Management Corp. Board.

But he did not.

Nor did anyone from the administration of one Piyush Jindal appear to justify cuts of more than $300 million that will necessarily cause significant reductions to the availability of health care to Louisiana’s uninsured poor—and even insured Louisiana residents who are geographically depending on facilities such as Bogalusa Medical Center, one of those slated for cutbacks.

Instead, Dr. Frank Opelka, chief of the LDU system health care, was left to defend the cuts and to withstand withering questioning from members of the joint committee.

It might also be expected that for a meeting as important as this one was, all members would be in attendance, but that also was not the case.

Absent from the entire four-hour session were Sens. Dan Claitor (R) and Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb (D) of Baton Rouge and ex-officio member Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans).

House members attending the meeting included committee Chairman Scott Simon (R-Abita Springs), Frank Hoffman, vice chair (R-West Monroe), John Anders (D-Vidalia), Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches), A.B. Franklin (D-Lake Charles), Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), Kenneth Havard (R-Jackson), Bob Hensgens (R-Abbeville), Dorothy Sue Hill (D-Dry Creek), Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), H. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte), John Morris (R-Monroe), Rogers Pope (R-Denham Springs), Lenar Whitney (R-Houma), Patrick Williams (D-Shreveport), Thomas Willmott (R-Kenner) and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, ex officio (R-Lake Charles.

Senators present on Thursday included Chairman David Heitmeier (D-New Orleans), Fred Mills, vice chairman (R-New Iberia), R.L. “Bret” Allain, II (R-Franklin), Sherri Smith Buffington (R-Keithville), Dale Erdey (R-Livingston), Elbert Guillory (D-Opelousas), Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa), and Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego).

Even more difficult to understand, however, was the early exit of many of those who did attend. Several were there long enough to qualify for their $149 per diem checks, plus 55.5 cents per mile (round trip) for travel, but were not present near the conclusion of the session when Nevers attempted to push through a resolution requesting the LSU Board of Supervisors and Dr. Opelka to delay implementation of any cuts until all plans have been finalized and presented to the legislature.

While there was a sufficient contingency of senators to mount a quorum, more than half the House members had departed, leaving Simon with no choice but to disallow any vote on Nevers’s motion under House rules.

Rep. Rogers Pope (R-Denham Springs), one of those who stayed until the end, said he could not speak for those who left and did not know the reasons for their departure. “They may have had things to do but you know, this is an important issue and we were elected to look out for the best interests of our constituents. I took an oath of office and I felt obligated to remain until adjournment.”

Pope said he is fully aware of the budgetary crisis, but said health care for the poor is imperative. “There are going to be cutbacks in services rendered but we need to make wise decisions on what is cut and where.

“I don’t like a lot of things this governor is doing,” he added. “I especially do not like what he has done and is doing to education in this state.

“Sure, we have problems in education, but you don’t scrap the whole system. We have bad governors in this country, too, but we can’t just throw them all out and start over. It’s not that easy. You work within the system to improve it; you don’t destroy the system.”

Pope said he was aware that Jindal does not like criticism. “But I’ve criticized him in the past so I know I’m among those on the outside.”

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“I would like to make a motion that the Joint Health and Welfare Committee urge and request the LSU Board of Supervisors and Dr. (Frank) Opelka (head of the LSU Health System) to delay implementation of any cuts to the LSU hospitals until plans have been finalized that will ensure patients of the LSU hospital system that they will continue to receive services and where they (services) will be administered.

“I think we all deserve the plan and they should hold up on the cuts until such time as they present the plan.”

–Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, at the conclusion of the four-hour hearing by the Joint Legislative Committee on Health and Welfare on Thursday, held to consider proposed cuts and closures of parts or all of seven of the 10 hospitals in the LSU system.

“Mr. Chairman, I would like you to consider allowing the senators to vote on the motion even though there’s not a quorum. We have a quorum of Senate members; they’re here and ready to do business.”

–Nevers again, on being told that House rules prohibited the committee’s voting on the motion. (Committee Chairman Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, again refused, citing House rules. There was no explanation as to why House members vacated the committee meeting before its conclusion.)

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The first legislative salvo has been fired but it remains to be seen whether it will become merely an isolated sniper’s round or if it will escalate into an all-out battle between state lawmakers and Gov. Piyush Jindal.

Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard (I-Thibodaux) Wednesday morning sent an email to his fellow legislators in the Louisiana House and Senate asking for their support in calling a special session of the legislature to consider reversing what he describes as “a complete disregard of the Legislative branch’s powers by this administration.”

Richard’s email comes as a result to deep budget cuts to higher education and health care, as well as the announcement of hospital and prison closures—all announced by Jindal since the end of the regular legislative session and without prior notification to legislators in the areas affected by the cutbacks.

The Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, part of the LSU Health System that is undergoing massive budget cuts, is in his area as is Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. “If they reduce Chabert to a clinic, it will cripple that facility,” he said.

Asked if he was concerned that Jindal might strip him of his committee assignments as he did with Rep. Harold Ritchie (D-Franklinton) and Rep. Jim Morris (R-Oil City) who voted against Jindal-backed bills in the last legislative session, Richard said, “The governor can do what he wants to do; I do what I have to do.”

Richard serves on the House committees on Education, Labor and Industrial Relations, and Transportation, Highways and Public Works.

He said he was not attempting to threaten the governor. “I just want the legislature more involved,” he said.

The procedure for legislators’ calling themselves into special session requires for one-third of each chamber’s membership (35 in the House and 13 in the Senate) to sign a petition which would then be delivered to the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate.

They, in turn, would be required to send individual petitions within 48 hours to each member of the legislature for his or her signature. Lawmakers would then have 20 days in which to return their individual petitions and once a majority of each chamber concurs, the presiding officers (Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles) must issue the call for the special session.

Richard, like other members of the House and Senate, is also upset at Jindal’s habit of leaving legislators out of the loop so that they often find out about administrative decisions that affect their legislative districts only after announcements are made by the governor’s office.

Two cases in point are the recently-announced closures of Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, scheduled for next month, and last Friday’s announced closure of the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy.

Lawmakers in both areas say they were not notified in advance of Jindal’s plans to close those facilities. One of those legislators is House Speaker Kleckley.

The Phelps closure will mean that some 940 prisoners will have to be moved to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. But of even greater concern to lawmakers is the fate of more than 250 prison employees who will face layoffs in a rural community that is largely dependent on the facility for employment.

Likewise, the closure of the 174-bed Southeast Louisiana Hospital, slated to begin Oct. 1, will mean the loss of about 300 jobs. The closure of Southeast, along with the earlier closure of state mental health facilities in Orleans Parish, leaves the entire southeastern area of the state without access to state mental health treatment.

Following the 2009 closure of New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, Jindal said those patients would be able to receive treatment at Southeast. Now that Southeast is facing closure, one reader asked, “Where will they go now, to Mississippi?”

Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill (D-Dry Creek) said she learned of the closure of C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center about a half-hour before the announcement was made by Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.

“I was devastated,” she said, adding that DeQuincy is in the rural northern part of Calcasieu Parish and that a large number of its residents are dependent on the facility. “I don’t understand why they (the administration) don’t realize that rural people need jobs also,” she said. “This is a good place for jobs. We can’t all move to Baton Rouge or New Orleans. They don’t want to live there.”

Rep. Brett Geymann (R-Lake Charles) called the abrupt announcement without advance notice to legislators “a lack of respect” for area legislators.

Rep. John Smith (R-Leesville) echoed the sentiments of Hill and Geymann when he said the secrecy of the move “perplexes me more than anything.”

Sticking to what has become an increasingly obvious policy of revealing as little as possible, the Department of Corrections did not respond to questions about why southwest Louisiana lawmakers were not included in the decision-making process.

“This is a good deal for Louisiana taxpayers and will result in significant savings while maintaining public safety,” was the only official response from the department. There was no further explanation as to where savings might be realized or how the closure was a good deal for the state—explanations that would seem easy enough to provide if the administration chose to do so.

Having provided the backdrop for the simmering resentment of Jindal that apparently has been building in the legislature, here is the content of Richard’s letter to his colleagues:

I respectfully ask that each of you read this email in its entirety and then ask yourself if you agree that we should immediately call ourselves in to special session. If you agree I ask that you respond to my legislative email address in order to begin the process of petitioning the body in order to reach a majority. While I acknowledge that this is not easy for each of us to decide I feel that it is time for us to get back into the process and our Constitution provides for that to happen.

Like many of you, I am passionate about the well-being of this state and its people and will continue to stand for the things that I believe in whether it be during session or while we are not in session. I believe that we are witnessing a complete disregard of the Legislative branch’s powers by this administration and must address this immediately or we shall find ourselves completely left out of the budget process. When we as a body are not convened in regular session, but have important matters to address, we do not have to wait until next year’s annual session. Our state Constitution provides a mechanism for us to meet in other times in order to enable the Legislature to continue the checks and balances of state government.

Extraordinary Sessions and the Need to Convene

As per Article III, Section 2(B) of the Constitution, the state “legislature may be convened at other times” in “Extraordinary Sessions,” (informally known as special sessions). It is during special sessions that legislators may address important items or “objects” as they are referred to in Article III.

Since our adjournment in June, there has been almost a billion dollars in reductions to the state budget without any input from the Legislature. And thanks to some media outlets we are now learning of still more cuts to healthcare without any input from the Legislature. And we know that mid-year cuts are approaching and these will be made with no input from the Legislature. We spent many hours during the past session debating the budget and trying to protect health care and higher ed and then after adjournment cuts were made with no input from legislators.

I believe it is time for us, as Legislators, to aggressively reinsert ourselves into the budget process by using the Constitutional rights given to us. We should not have to relinquish our legislative duties to the administration once we pass the budget at the end of regular session in times like this. I am tired of explaining to constituents and at civic gatherings that there is nothing we can do once the budget is passed.

There IS a PROCESS:

As stated earlier, Article III, Section (B) of the Constitution authorizes the Legislature to call itself into session for up to a maximum of 30 days. A majority of House members (53) and a majority of Senate members (20) must be in favor of convening and, if so, its members choose the time and the Call.

I would like to see the Call include the discussion of health care and higher ed and how we can determine just how reductions are made. The Constitution allows for us to set the agenda and each of you may have other interests to bring before the body.

Please understand that Louisiana Revised Statutes 24:11 sets forth the procedure for calling ourselves into special session. First, we will need a petition signed by 35 members of the House and by 13 members of the Senate, which would be delivered to the presiding officer in each. Within 48 hours of receipt of petition, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are then required to send individual petitions to each member for their signature. We, as Legislators, then have 20 days to return our individual petitions and once a majority of each house is reached, the presiding officers must call the Legislature into special session.

It is OUR CHOICE.

This is how I look at the situation: we can either continue to stand by and allow the administration (to) amend the budget; or we can do what we were elected to do; to represent our constituents. The Constitution gives us that right. The choice is up to each one of us.

In closing, I fully understand that convening and conducting a special session will not be easy but think about the cuts that our hospitals and universities are having to make and will continue to be forced to make while we, as local elected representatives, sit back and try to defend those cuts that we know nothing about. Please know that I respect each and every one of you, regardless of your decision to support or not to support a special session. I simply ask that you take the time to respond to this email to: richardj@legis.la.gov.
Respectfully,

Jerome “Dee” Richard
La. State House of Representatives
District 55, Lafourche Parish
Thibodaux, La. 70301

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