By Robert Burns
After Louisiana’s FYE books were closed on June 30, 2013, the Jindal administration touted the fact that 2,340 hospital employees had been laid off during that fiscal year. Nevertheless, one hospital, the Huey P. Long Hospital in Pineville, was proving particularly vexing for Jindal’s administration.
With much fanfare, Jindal’s folks called a news conference to announce that the hospital’s operations would be transferred to England Airpark with an estimated $30 million required to renovate the facility which was closed in the early 1990s. The money was said to come from $5 million pledged by the England facility and the remainder from state-issued capital outlay bonds issued during FYE ’13.
Despite all of the hoopla associated with the announcement of the transfer, the proposal ended up fizzling out, and Jindal’s administration had to conjure up a “Plan B.”
That turned out to be another iteration of the public/private partnerships for which the Jindal administration essentially could have qualified for a patent on crafting such arrangements. In this instance, the public/private partnership would entail Rapides Regional Medical Center and Christus St. Frances Cabrini Hospital taking over much of the workload of Huey P. Long.
Of course, the whole proposal had the
gnawing obstacle that it needed approval from those darn folks at the Legislature, and that’s where things got interesting.
To accomplish the goal, Senator Gerald Long obediently introduced
Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 48 in the regular session of the 2014 Legislative Session. On March 31, 2014, the Senate Committee posted an agenda for its meeting of April 2, 2014; however, that agenda was devoid of any reference to SCR-48.
On April 1, 2014 at 4:07 p.m., a revised agenda was posted in which SCR
-48 was posted and itemized to include a notation entailing its subject matter: “creating a new model of health care delivery in the Alexandria and Pineville area.” Amendments were added to SCR-48, and it ultimately passed both the House (66-28) and Senate (26-11).
Baton Rouge attorney Arthur Smith, III,
filed litigation on behalf of affected employees of the hospital and others alleging violations of Senate Rules of Order 13.73 and 13.75.
Also alleged was a violation of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Laws
, and relief was sought to have SCR-48 declared null and void (a relief available under Louisiana’s Open Meetings laws) based on that violation and also an assertion that SCR-48 was unconstitutional. A preliminary injunction was also sought to block the closure of the hospital with the ultimate goal of obtaining a permanent injunction.
The trial court granted the preliminary injunction, but it simultaneously suspended enforcement of the
preliminary injunction upon the defendants (the Louisiana Senate, LSU, and the State of Louisiana) perfecting an appeal.
It was initially believed that the Louisiana Supreme Court (LSC) would decide the matter because of the issue raised of the constitutionality of SCR
-48. However, the Supreme Court quickly refused to hear the matter in stating that it was “not properly before this Court.” The Supremes (no, not the singing Supremes) elaborated by ruling that it could consider only matters which had been declared unconstitutional in a court of law.
Since the trial court’s reasons for judgment only made reference to the
potential unconstitutionality of SCR-48 without making a definitive declaration that it was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court denied writs.
Meanwhile, the hospital was closed, and Smith took his case to the First Circuit Court of Appeal. That appeal was dismissed based
upon the fact there was no active injunction to prevent the hospital from being closed. That was the case because, expecting (wrongly) the Supreme Court to rule on the matter, Judge Robert Downing suspended the preliminary injunction. With no injunction in place to prevent the closure, the hospital was padlocked.
The First Circuit issued its decision on September 15, 2015. That ruling notwithstanding, the
declaratory judgment aspect of the lawsuit could proceed forward, and that led to a hearing in 19th JDC Judge Don Johnson’s courtroom on Monday, June 13, 2016.
During that hearing, much of what has been elaborated above was rehashed, but then co-counsel for the day’s proceedings, Chris Roy, Sr., of Alexandria, took center stage and converted what had been basically a snooze fest into a fireworks display.
Prior to Roy beginning testimony, Judge Johnson interjected a few points of his own into the arguments. First, Johnson indicated that, while he was a student at Southern University, he experienced a significant health issue and went to Baton Rouge’s local charity hospital
, Earl K. Long, and he said, “I sure was glad it was there to treat me.”
Earl K. Long was also shut down by the Jindal administration and subsequently demolished. Emergency room treatment of indigent patients was initially taken over by Baton Rouge General Midtown. But Baton Rouge General closed its emergency room more than a year ago. That forced low-income charity patients in the northern part of East Baton Rouge Parish to travel a much further distance to Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in South Baton Rouge for treatment. That point was not lost on attorneys for the defendants who claimed that care would continue to be provided for the underprivileged, but such care would simply now take place under the new public/private venture.
Roy said that the closure of the
Huey Long Charity Hospital caused an enormous level of anxiety among the community’s population and also with the employees of the hospital. Johnson acknowledged that fact and said, “I’m aware of that fact. They didn’t like it at all.” Roy stressed that “125 employees lost their jobs and $11 million in wages were lost as a result of this episode.”
Roy focused most of his arguments on the fact that, contrary to defense attorney claims, the whole issue
of SCR-48 is not now “moot.” He emphasized that ordinary citizens are provided with only one mechanism for making their sentiments known about proposed legislation and that is through “showing up and testifying at committees and subcommittees of the Legislature.”
Roy then rhetorically asked how they were supposed to do that w
hen the Senate would engage in such a “flat-out violation” of posting an addition to the agenda at 4:07 p.m. the day before a hearing when the clearly-established deadline was 1 p.m. for such an addition. Roy then stressed his age, and even poked fun at the relative youth of one of his opposing counselors (who appeared to be in his late 20s at most), in indicating that he, Roy, was one of the participants in the formation of the present Louisiana Constitution.
Roy said, “One of our main objectives was to try and make everything as transparent as possible because there had been a prior governor, whom I won’t reference by name (a thinly veiled reference to Huey Long), who sought to keep the public from knowing
anything that was transpiring.” The irony of the subject matter of the suit being the closing of a hospital named for him seemed not to be lost on anybody in the room.
“Your Honor,” Roy continued, “the Senate basically said ‘to hell with the Constitution. We are the Senate of the State of Louisiana, and we decide what we will do and won’t do.’” Roy then emphasized that opposing counsel could not simply argue that the whole matter was “moot,” and assert a defense along the lines of “we won’t do it again.” Roy then emphasized that Louisiana Senate President John Alario is a good man with integrity and a close personal friend of his, but he then asserted that what Alario allowed to transpire in this instance was just “wrong.”
The State sought the granting of a Motion for Summary Judgment (MSJ) to dismiss the case, and the plaintiffs sought the granting of an MSJ declaring SCR-48 to be null and void. In the battle of the MSJs, Johnson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs: “SCR-48 of the 2014 Regular Session is declared to be Null and Void. The Plaintiff’s may seek attorney fees, costs, and expenses through post-hearing motion. The Joint Motion for Summary Judgment filed by defendants is denied.”
Now all that remains to be seen is whether the state will have to pay salaries and benefits retroactive to the hospital’s closing date to those 125 employees (the amount given was $11 million saved by closing the facility) or if there will be yet another appeal of a 19th JDC judge’s ruling to the First Circuit.
The smart money is on an appeal.