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The coronavirus timeline for Louisiana is rather intriguing, to say the least.

  • On Jan. 11, China reported its first death from COVID-19 virus. Within 10 days, confirmed cases of the virus were reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S.
  • On Jan. 23, Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, was cut off by Chinese authorities in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus.
  • The coronavirus outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30.
  • The next day, travel from Asia to the U.S. was restricted.
  • On Feb. 5, the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined. By Feb. 13, 218 passengers were infected.
  • On Feb. 6, a USA Today headline asked “When the threat of coronavirus end?”
  • The next day, a Chinese doctor who had first raised the alarm over COVID-19 died from the virus. In a week, more than 14,000 new cases were reported in Hubei Province.
  • France announced the first coronavirus death in Europe on Feb. 14. A week later, two cases were reported in Iran.
  • On Feb. 23, South Korea raised its threat alert level as concern about the spread of COVID-19 grew. That same day, Italy saw a major surge in cases as officials began locking down entire towns. By Feb. 24, Iran had 61 cases and 12 deaths, more than any other country but China.

Then, the next fateful day, on Feb. 25, nearly half-a-million people were allowed to crowd into the New Orleans French Quarter to celebrate Mardi Gras despite more than a month of clear signals that the threat was spreading and that the virus had already invaded the U.S.

Within two weeks, Louisiana would have its first case of COVID-19. The next day, two more were reported. All were in the immediate New Orleans area.

President Donald Trump has been on the receiving end of considerable criticism—and justifiably so—for his general lack of a cohesive plan to fight COVID-19 and for his delay in taking any action, choosing instead to call the threat a “hoax” designed to harm his presidency, making everything about him—as usual.

But officials in Louisiana could have been more proactive had there been trained, qualified leadership at the helm of the Louisiana Department of Hospitals.

Instead, LDH has been rudderless since former Secretary DR. REBEKAH GEE resigned, effective on Jan. 31. DR.  COURTNEY PHILLIPS has been named as her successor, but isn’t scheduled to assume her new duties until next month. In the interim, the state’s largest agency is being run by LDH executive legal counsel STEPHEN RUSSO.

A lawyer, not a doctor.

Russo’s lack of qualifications to address a major health crisis aside, he brought considerable BAGGAGE with him when he was appointed to fill in until Phillips’s arrival.

Accordingly, Russo must be asked about the threat of COVID-19: what did you know and when did you know it? (with apologies to former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of the Watergate hearings fame).

In Louisiana’s case, the health of its citizens was placed in the care of one who lacked the professional knowledge of how to deal with an epidemic, much less a pandemic. Simply put, he was ill-equipped by training to properly read the tea leaves. Did he even know enough to seek the counsel of those who could?

So, even as the virus spread from China to Korea to Iran to France and inevitably, to America, with indications it wasn’t about to slow down, New Orleans was allowed to proceed with an influx of nearly half-a-million people, rubbing elbows (and more), eating, drinking and living in proximity—even as the clouds were gathering.

Look at how the corona virus spread in Louisiana. It started in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, soon became an ominous blob on the COVID-19 MAP, a blob centered at first in New Orleans.

Then, it began moving north and west. It soon reached St. James, Ascension, East and West Baton Rouge and as of today (March 23), exactly two weeks after the first, lone case was revealed, there are 1,172 cases in Louisiana—concentrated in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area.

As of today, there have been 34 deaths in the state, third highest total in the nation, behind only New York’s 123 and Washington’s 98.

Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.

But the signs were there and one must wonder if a qualified health professional had been leading LDH at this critical time, might Gov. Edwards have been given a heads-up to call off the Mardi Gras celebration?

Sure, it would have been a blow to the gut of the New Orleans tourist industry in the short term but no less of a blow to the entire state’s economy that has now transpired for the long term.

Had there been someone in charge who could look at the evolving timeline as events unfolded and hoisted the warning flags, there’s a chance we would not have the third highest death total in the nation.

There’s also the chance that Louisiana would not be the only state in the Deep South subjected to the necessity of a lockdown.

Cabinet members, after all, are appointed not only to administer individual agencies, but also to give advice and counsel to governors—and presidents—on actions that need to be taken in a timely manner.

 

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In terms of head-scratching bewilderment, the appointment of Stephen Russo as interim secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH)—even with that word “interim” thrown in—by Gov. John Bel Edwards makes about as much sense as his reappointment of Mike Edmonson as State Police Superintendent back in 2016.

The governor’s announcement of Russo’s appointment to fill in for the departed Dr. Rebekah Gee was made on Friday (Jan. 31).

Compounding the obvious lack of vetting, word is that while a brief story by Sam Karlin in the Baton Rouge Advocate quoted Edwards as saying he has a “long list” of potential candidates for permanent secretary, the fix is apparently in for the appointment of Courtney Phillips. Click HERE to read that story.

I’ll get to Phillips later. First, let me re-hash a couple of LouisianaVoice stories that featured Russo rather prominently—and not in a particularly favorable light.

LouisianaVoice on January 18, 2018, almost two years ago to the day, published a story detailing a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement by an LDH female employee. More specifically, the story told of how the perpetrator, Attorney Supervisor Weldon Hill, was shielded and protected by Hill’s boss, Executive Counsel Stephen Russo. You can read that story by clicking HERE.

When the woman complained to Human Resources and to Hill’s supervisor, she was moved from her eighth-floor office to a converted storage room on the fifth floor. She was not provided a telephone nor was she allowed to take her computer with her to her new location.

Besides the legal settlement, that lawsuit cost the state more than $76,000 in LEGAL FEES.

We followed that story with another exactly three months later on April 18 in which we published a string of emails written by Russo on his state computer on state time on behalf of Dr. Gee during her negotiations  with LSU to retain her medical license, credentials and board certifications through continued part-time employment as a physician at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

(That alone should have triggered conflict of interests questions since she would be performing work for an agency overseen by—and which receives funding from—the agency she was heading at the time.)

Her appointment as LDH secretary was announced on Jan. 5, 2016, and by 3:12 p.m. on Jan. 13, Russo was already emailing LSUHSC Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier on Dr. Gee’s behalf.

A rank and file employee would be called on the carpet and perhaps fined for such a breach of ethics. A civil service employee of another agency, for example, was once fined $250 because a vendor had sent her—unsolicited—a baked ham for Christmas.

So, now the message is clear: vastly different standards apply dependent upon whether you are a rank-and-file civil servant or a privileged executive counsel of an agency. Play your political cards right and you might even get appointed interim secretary. Never mind those sexually harassed employees you leave in your wake.

Which now brings us back to Courtney Phillips, a Port Sulphur native who previously worked as Deputy Secretary of LDH, then known as the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), in the Bobby Jindal administration. She left that position in February 2015 to become CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

On Feb. 13, 2015, LouisianaVoice posted a story dealing with her employment at DHH during which time her mother was hired as a DHH employee, raising questions of NEPOTISM.

She left Lincoln in August 2018 for Austin to become Executive Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Agency but not before leaving a path of destruction and low morale in her old agency.

On March 6, 2018, BRAD GIANAKOS, chief counsel for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, by all accounts a professional who cared deeply about his work, was summoned to the office of the agency’s chief operating officer where he was summarily fired and escorted out of the building.

He wasn’t the only one. Others met similar fate with no explanation other than the agency wanted to move “in a different direction.”

But when Gianakos interviewed for other state jobs, he found the doors closed. He concluded that he was being blackballed even though there never any allegations of wrongdoing or criticisms of the job he had done for two decades at HHS.

A month later, he was dead. Suicide.

And four months later Phillips moved on, leaving behind an agency missing many longtime managers and administrators who also left but for different reasons: a harsh working environment.

And now, less than four years after leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight and less than two years after departing Lincoln, she may again be on the move—this time back to Louisiana where she will rejoin Russo.

It’s enough to make you scratch your head in bewilderment.

 

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The news release by last September said that former Gov. Bobby Jindal had been appointed to the board of directors of by Wellcare Health Plans, Inc., of Tampa, Florida.

Yawn. Ho-hum. Has LouisianaVoice become so desperate for stories that it resurrects a nine-month-old news release?

Well, things have been a little slow of late. Even the recently-adjourned legislative session failed to generate any surprises other than the usual parties, dinners at Baton Rouge’s most expensive restaurants and hobnobbing with lobbyists to the general detriment of constituents, i.e. Louisiana citizens.

But it has long been my contention that when one peels back a few layers from the cover story, one will usually find the real story. After all, a July 2016 LouisianaVoice STORY turned up a link between Jindal and a lucrative state contract for another company that had appointed him to its board.

Accordingly, I went looking a little deeper and YOWSER! Sha-ZAM!

It seems that appointment of Jindal, described in the news release as one “who has dedicated his career to public service and advancing innovative healthcare polices,” appears to have been payback for services rendered while he was governor.

Documents obtained from the Louisiana Department of Health show that CENTENE, a major U.S. health insurer, is the parent company of Louisiana Healthcare Connections, Inc., which was awarded a contract for nearly $1 billion with the Louisiana Department of Hospitals in September 2011, just a month before Jindal’s reelection to a second term.

LHCC Contract 2012

The contract called for Louisiana Healthcare Connections to perform “a broad range of services necessary for the delivery of health care services to Medicaid enrollees…”

That contract was to run from February 1, 2012, through January 31, 2015.

On January 19, 2015, the contract was renewed for another three years, to run through January 31, 2018. The contract amount was increased from the original $926 million to $1.9 billion.

LHCC Contract 2015

But just before Jindal left office, on December 1, 2015, that contract was amended from $1.9 billion to $3.9 billion, perhaps in anticipation that incoming Gov. John Bel Edwards would keep his promise to expand Medicaid under Obamacare—which he did.

In March of this year, USA Today published a STORY that Centene (Louisiana Healthcare Connections parent company, remember) would purchase WellCare Health Plans, Inc. for $17.3 billion.

It would be most interesting to see if Jindal netted a windfall from that transaction, coming as it did only six months after he was named to WellCare Health Plans’ board.

It’s unknown just how long negotiations had been ongoing between Centene and WellCare Health Plans, but the timing does open the door for speculation that the doubling of the Louisiana Healthcare Connections contract, Jindal’s appointment to the WellCare Health Plan board and Centene’s purchase of WellCare are more than coincidental.

To add a little spice to the recipe of Louisiana political gumbo, they’re also a few interesting campaign contributions.

  • On March 11, 2011, just six months before Louisiana Healthcare was awarded that initial contract for $926 million, WellCare of Louisiana, a subsidiary of WellCare Health Plans, contributed $5,000 to Jindal’s reelection campaign.
  • On January 17, 2012, only two weeks before its initial contract took effect, Louisiana Healthcare Connections gave Jindal $5,000.
  • Louisiana Healthcare’s parent company, Centene, gave Jindal $5,000 on January 17, 2012 (the same date as Louisiana Healthcare’s contribution). Centene gave him another $5,000 on November 19, 2012 and still another $5,000 back on August 14, 2008, eight months after Jindal first moved into the governor’s office.
  • Oh, and the New Orleans law firm of McGlinchey Stafford, the registered agent for Louisiana Healthcare, gave Jindal $1,000 on September 23, 2003; $5,000 on October 30, 2003; $5,000 on April 6, 2007, and $5,000 on March 2, 2011.
  • On April 23, 2009, Centene’s then Chairman and CEO Michael Neidorff kicked in $3,000 to Jindal.

It would seem that Bobby Jindal is perfectly willing to skirt a few ethical standards in order to ensure that life after politics can continue to benefit from life while in politics.

So, you see, even the most mundane news release can carry a wealth of information if one is willing to follow a convoluted path to the ultimate source of the money.

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If you like political posturing, puffery, bombast, and breast-beating, then the reaction to that LETTER being sent out to 37,000 nursing home patients in Louisiana is tailor-made for political junkies like you.

The letter, sent out by the Louisiana Department of Health, got the desired reaction. CBS Evening News featured the story prominently in its Wednesday newscast, complete with a brief interview with Jim Tucker of Terrytown, operator of about a dozen nursing homes.

It’s interesting that Tucker was sought out for camera face time. He was Bobby Jindal’s Speaker of the House who abetted Jindal for eight years in gutting the state budget of services for the elderly and mentally ill. And now the roll him out in front of the cameras to cry wolf.

The Edwards administration tried to assure us, through Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne and LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee, that this is not Chicken Little, that the sky really will fall if budget cuts are not restored by July 1, the date that the state is projected to fall over the metaphorical fiscal cliff when $650 million in tax revenue falls off the books.

Typically, the reaction by Republicans in the legislature, the same ones who have steadfastly refused to face fiscal reality since the beginning of the Jindal accident in 2008, was to scream foul to anyone who would listen—and there were plenty who did.

Dr. Gee, of course, did her part, even tearing up as she explained to the TV cameras that hearts “are breaking over the need to do this. We can’t provide services with no money to pay for them.”

Dardenne added his bit, saying, “This letter is scary, but it’s not a tactic. This is the reality that we are facing.”

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) gave the best performance. With a lock of hair hanging down over his forehead a-la the late Bobby Kennedy, he bleated, “This is premature at best, reckless at worst,” adding that the letter was designed “to scare the elderly of this state, and that is an embarrassment.” No, Cameron, you’re an embarrassment.

Ditto for Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), chairman of the House Republican Delegation, who called the letter an “unnecessary political scare tactic done to intimidate and frighten the most vulnerable people into believing they will be kicked out onto the streets if the governor doesn’t get everything he wants in the form of revenue.”

And Cameron Henry should understand that the legislature as a body is no less an embarrassment to those of us who have been forced to observe its collective ineptitude on a daily basis for 10 years now. To quote my grandfather, they couldn’t find a fart in a paper bag.

Lost in all the rhetoric is the hard fact that the administration might not have found it necessary to send out the letter—regardless whether it’s a scare tactic or reality—had the legislature made any effort to face up to its responsibility to the 4.5 million citizens of this state.

But here’s the real reality—and just remember where you read it:

Not a single nursing home patient is going to be evicted. Not one.

Want to know why?

Money.

And I don’t mean money to be appropriated by the legislature to properly fund state government, nursing homes included.

I’m talking about campaign money.

Lots of it. Tons of it.

Since 2014, individual nursing homes, nursing home owners, and nursing home political action committees have contributed more than $750,000 to Louisiana politicians, primarily legislators. Here is just a partial list of NURSING HOME CONTRIBUTIONS

And that’s just over the past four years.

More than $50,000 was contributed the campaign of Edwards.

Henry, the one who called out the administration for its “scare tactics,” received more than $10,000 since 2014.

Senate President John Alario also received more than $12,000 over the same time span.

Louisiana Public Service Commission member Foster Campbell said on the Jim Engster show on Louisiana Public Radio earlier this week that since he first ran for the legislature more than 40 years ago, the cost of seeking political office has become cost prohibitive. Foster said when he first ran for the State Senate in 1975, he borrowed $7,500 to finance his campaign. “Now, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars” and the average person who wants to serve cannot afford to do so, he said.

I’ve always wondered why corporations and the wealthy who seem so concerned about “good government” don’t use their money to help others rather than lavish it on politicians. The money they throw at politicians and lobbyists could be put to such more productive use—but they don’t try because they don’t really care about good government. And every now and then, I can’t help wondering why that is.

But I don’t wonder about it long. The answer is obvious: power and influence.

And that’s a sorry commentary on our political system, from the local level all the way to the very top of the political pyramid.

And it’s for that reason that not a single nursing home resident will be evicted. By some miracle, repeated every year, it seems, extra money will be “found” to do what is politically expedient.

Because the money has already been spread around by those who buy influence and legislators.

Remember where you read it.

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First and foremost, there is nothing in the job description requirements that says the Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) must—or should—be a physician.

Nor does the state receive any benefit from the secretary’s maintaining a medical license or credentials and board certifications.

So, why should the head of the state’s largest department devote so much time, effort, and manpower on attempts to secure her professional credentials outside her state job?

Dr. Rebekah Gee was appointed Secretary of LDH by Gov. John Bel Edwards in January 2016 as he came to office. Prior to that, she was employed by the LSU HEALTH SCIENCES CENTER (LSUHSC) in New Orleans where she served as an obstetrician/gynecologist and as assistant professor of health policy and management.

So, it stands to reason that any attempt by LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee to pursue negotiations with LSU to retain her medical license, credentials, and board certifications through continued part-time employment as a physician at LSUHSC would be done on her own behalf and at her personal legal expenses.

Certainly, rank-and-file state employees must adhere to strict guidelines regarding the use of state computers, email addresses and telephone numbers—not to mention the taboo of calling on state attorneys to do private legal work on state time and state equipment.

Instead, following her appointment as secretary, she apparently directed the department’s legal counsel to pursue negotiations with LSU on her behalf on state time and using his state email address and signing off on his email correspondence with LSU as the executive counsel for the department.

Included in the email thread were negotiations on Dr. Gee’s behalf for her to retain her tenure at LSU (pretty difficult, considering her status was reduced to unpaid volunteer) and for LSU to pony up the premiums to keep her medical malpractice insurance from lapsing—a pretty generous financial windfall in its own right.

And all that doesn’t even address the apparent conflict of interest in her performing work for an agency overseen by—and which receives funding from—the department which she now heads.

As they say, rank does have its privileges and the series of emails back and forth between executive counsel Stephen Russo and LSU officials appears pretty rank.

Gee’s APPOINTMENT was announced on Jan. 5, 2016, and before she could even get settled into her office, the email campaign by Russo had begun in earnest.

At 3:12 p.m. on Jan 13, Russo emailed LSUHSC Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier to ask “if there is anything you need from us regarding Dr. Gee. My understanding is that she will not be receiving compensation for providing services at the LSU clinic. If that is the case, that is a good starting point to make sure we are well clear of any issues…”

At 5:15 p.m. that same day, Hollier responded: “Dr. Gee will receive a ‘gratis appointment’ and will not receive compensation from LSUHSC. She would like to still see patients to maintain her medical licensure; we are happy to have her see patients. Would there be any ‘conflict of interest’ or other issues since, as Sect. of DHH (since renamed LDH), she ‘oversees’ Medicaid payments to LSUHSC?”

The following day, Jan. 14, LSUHSC General Counsel Katherine Muslow emailed Russo at 1:36 p.m. to say, “In addition to the prohibitions provided in the Governmental Code of Ethics, the incompatibility provisions of (state statutes) should also be reviewed for applicability.”

She then went on to list six “incompatibility provisions” which she seemed to feel would prohibit Dr. Gee from working even as a volunteer for an agency partially funded by the department that she headed.

On Jan. 15, Russo, still on the state clock at 1:28 p.m. and still on a state computer, wrote LSUHSC General Counsel Katherine Muslow and others from his state email account to ask that “y’all email or telephone us and let is (sic) know the legal relationship today between y’all and secretary gee (sic).”

At 1:40 p.m., Dr. Hollier emailed Russo to reiterate that Dr. Gee “is our gratis faculty with no compensation.”

Two minutes later, Russo, apparently having not fully digested the content of Muslow’s list of reasons why Dr. Gee could not work for LSU (and too excited to bother with punctuation), responded to Hollier: “Super so she is not contract or anything but like any other faculty just not compensated?”

He finally got around to responding to Muslow at 6:32 p.m. that day: “Good deal. I am sending to my ethics folks. I have not been talking with the attorney general and have not sought a formal ethics opinion.”

On Jan. 19, Russo was back at it early, emailing Hollier at 8:33 a.m. to discuss the termination of the contract between LDH and LSUHSC for the Medicaid Medical DIRECTOR position, the position Dr. Gee had held at LSUHSC. “Before we date and send the contract termination,” he wrote, “the Secretary (Dr. Gee) would like for me to confirm the following:

  1. Her current LSU title;
  2. Her tenure status;
  3. The dates when she can begin clinic.”

At 9:48 a.m., Hollier responded: “She is an Associate Professor, gratis appointment. She had tenure but loses that since she is not Full Time; but whenever she returns to FT (full time), I will simply restore her Tenure. She will arrange to see patients two half-days a month, starting I believe after the special session. I am waiting for final clearance from LSU System Counsel.”

The news about Gee’s loss of tenure must’ve thrown Dr. Gee and by extension, Russo, into a tizzy. On Jan 21 at 2:54 p.m., Russo emailed Hollier: “Can yall’s (sic) lawyers look at this tenure issue again? It is obviously a little worrisome that she would be ‘losing’ tenure. Personally, your word is good as gold to me but what if you have moved to greater adventures.”

“I am happy to have it reviewed again,” answered Hollier at 3:48 p.m., “but regs say tenure only for full time employees. I will see what other options might be available.”

So, bottom line, what we have here is the secretary of a state department:

  • Working for an agency over which her department has jurisdiction;
  • Attempting to retain tenure from her old job even though state regulations clearly say an employee must be full time to earn or keep tenure;
  • Attempting to have the state pay for her medical malpractice insurance;
  • Instructing a subordinate (legal counsel Stephen Russo) perform private legal work on state time and on state equipment on behalf of her efforts to retain private part time employment.

As the late C.B. Forgotston would say, you can’t make this stuff up.

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