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For an agency with an annual budget of about $1 million, the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board has taken little initiative in protecting patients from therapists with histories of substance abuse, sexual abuse, billing issues and even practicing without a license.

That is the conclusion of an audit of the agency released this week by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office. (Read the full audit report HERE.)

The audit report also found that of 4,857 physical therapists licensed in Louisiana since 2010, fully 78.1 percent (3,791) had never undergone background checks as required by state law.

That’s because even though state law granted LPTB the authority to conduct background checks on new applicants in January 2010, the checks were not undertaken until January 2016—six years after the law went into effect.

During the fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the LPTB received 169 complaints containing 200 allegations that took an average of 120 days to resolve. LPTB, the audit noted, has never established timeframes for how long it should take to investigate complaints and to issue disciplinary actions. Investigation times ranged from one day to more than a year, the report said.

State law granted LPTB authority to conduct background checks on applicants upon initial licensures in January 2010 but did not begin actually conducting the checks until January 2016. “As a result, as of October 2019, 3,791 (78.1 percent) of 4,857 current licensees who were licensed prior to January 2016 did not receive background checks,” the audit report said.

Moreover, LPTB “is not required to inquire of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) prior to issuing or renewing licenses, so it may be making decisions without important disciplinary information on potential applicants from other states,” it said.

LPTB failed to report all adverse actions to the NPDB in fiscal years 2015 through 2019 as required by federal regulations, the audit said. “We found that LPTB did not report 29.7 percent (27 of 91 actions issued involving 46 licensees to the NPDB within 30 days,” auditors said.

“LPTB took an average of 222 days to report these 27 actions…ranging from 42 days to more than two years. The nature of these cases included sexual misconduct, substance abuse, criminal convictions, and fraud.

Auditors suggested possible a legislative remedy to at least one shortcoming. Because current procedures allow for background checks on only new applicants, the report said, “The legislature may wish to consider amending (state law) to require LPTB to conduct background checks on all applicants, including renewing applicants and reinstatements.”

 

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We are constantly encouraged to participate in our government.

Our civics teachers in high school drummed into our heads that we should get involved.

Write your representative or senators, we are told, because it’s the best way to make your thoughts known.

Our U.S. representatives and senators even have web pages on which we may contact them about a particular issue.

Do you really want to know just how effective it is to contact your representative or senator?

Do you truly believe a warm-blooded human actually reads your letter?

Are you interested in learning how difficult it is to get your message heard over the hum of the campaign money-counting machines in your congressperson’s office?

If your answer to the last three questions is yes, read on.

I recently went onto Rep. Garret Graves’s web page and clicked on the “Contact” link and sent him an email, the basis of which dealt with the 2016 flood.

I explained that like thousands of other victims, when seeking flood relief, I was directed by FEMA to the Small Business Administration table where I was given an application form for an SBA loan to repair damage to my home which took in 33 inches of water.

No one at FEMA or SBA bothered to explain that applying for a loan made me ineligible for a FEMA grant or even if I was offered a loan and refused it, the fact that it was offered automatically made me ineligible for a FEMA grant.

Read that again: even if I turned the loan offer down, I would be considered ineligible for a grant by virtue of the fact that a loan was offered.

I explained to Rep. Graves that my home was paid for at the time of the flood and that I did not carry flood insurance because we were in one of the highest-elevated parts of Denham Springs that had never even come close to flooding.

I also informed Rep. Graves that like hundreds, perhaps thousands of other victims, I was 76 years old, retired, and would never live to see my now brand-new $124,000 mortgage paid off.

I asked him to look into the possibility of loan forgiveness for the flood victims as had been done for other disaster victims and which was being considered [and subsequently approved] for potential recipients of SBA loans as part of the then-proposed $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Here is the response I received from his office:

 

Thanks for taking the time to reach out to me about COVID-19. As we work to keep Louisianans safe and to minimize the economic damages associated with America’s response to this uniquely challenging threat, let’s keep this fact in mind: In Louisiana, we’ve seen our share of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters; people here know how to be resilient and pull through hard circumstances like this, and I’m confident that we are going to come out on the other side strong.

As you know, the United States is responding to a global outbreak of a respiratory disease caused by a new type of coronavirus, called COVID-19. Unfortunately, cases of COVID-19 and instances of community spread of the virus are being reported in a growing number of states. Following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, the President of the United States declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency.

Congress – and the entire federal government – is acting quickly to help Americans impacted by the coronavirus. We are working to provide regulatory relief, economic support, and innovations in our private industries to combat this threat. So far, the House and Senate have passed two major pieces of support legislation:

  • On March 4, we authorized $8 billion in emergency funding for health research into COVID-19 to develop high-quality diagnostic kits, more effective treatment plans, and a vaccine to prevent the further spread of the disease.
  • On March 18, President Trump signed a second piece of legislation called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This package was focused on individuals and families and ensures accessible testing, emergency paid leave, and support and flexibility for small businesses. You can read more about this bill here.

Our next step in the Congress is to pass legislation to deliver further assistance for our economy, including financial relief for those businesses and industries that are being hit the hardest by disruptions related to the pandemic response. As this bill comes together, my focus is on making sure the needs of South Louisiana’s families, individuals, and businesses are addressed.

This is a fast-evolving crisis, and things continue to change as new information becomes available every day. Please visit the coronavirus page on my website, where we are posting a running list of information, resources, and useful links to help you navigate this challenge. Additionally, please feel free to call our office or the Louisiana statewide call network (211) if you have additional questions or concerns. I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to me with your thoughts and hope you’ll stay in contact as this issue progresses.

Sincerely,

Garret Graves
Member of Congress

 

So, there you have it. If you have an issue that’s dear to your heart, just write your congressperson. [S]he’s there to help.

 

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Once upon a time, there were 10 ventilators in a building on East Airport Drive in Baton Rouge that could have been used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Once upon a time, that 22,000-square-foot-building on East Airport Drive also contained four operating rooms, two recovery rooms, a CT scanner, an MRI scanner, oxygen, a lab and sterilization facilities.

No more. Not since 2016 when state authorities raided the offices of Dr. Arnold Feldman at the behest of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners which decided it would come down hard on Dr. Feldman for offenses that have never been fully explained.

They pulled his license as his punishment. But then, the board has since offered to reinstate him—provided he pays nearly half-a-million dollars in extortion fees.

Why would I call it extortion? Consider this: His fine was $5,000 but the “cost” of the proceeding [court costs, if you will] was a cool $456,980.60. Anyone from the board care to explain that in a way that makes sense?

Didn’t think so.

Could it have been coincidental that Dr. Feldman was considered to be competition for Dr. J. Michael Burdine, who was founder of and a PARTNER in The Spine Diagnostic Promotional Clinic on Flanders Drive?

Could it also have been mere coincidence that Burdine was serving as president of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners at the time Feldman was shut down?

An added note of interest is that Burdine is an officer in the LOUISIANA SOCIETY OF INTERVENTIONAL PAIN. A fellow officer in the organization is lobbyist Alton Ashy.

Ashy is a power player of some renown around the Louisiana State Capitol. Among his long list clients is the Spine Diagnostic Center of Baton Rouge.

So Burdine, in his capacity as president of the State Board of Medical Examiners, took out one of the main competitors of his Spine Diagnostic Center which is represented before the legislature and the governor by lobbyist Alton Ashy who sits on the board of the Louisiana Society of Interventional Pain with Burdine.

You’d be surprised what small circles some people move in in Baton Rouge. Tight little circles like that are difficult to penetrate and like tightly-formed hurricanes, pack considerable clout.

Meanwhile, 10 ventilators and an assortment of other critical medical equipment are no longer available. They were sold by Dr. Feldman, who now resides in a motor home in Florida when he could be in Baton Rouge treating coronavirus patients.

Only in Louisiana…

 

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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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