Speeches focus on further expansion

BY JEFF ADELSON
jadelson@theadvocate.com
July 30, 2013

Ochsner Health Systems officials celebrated the hospital chain’s soon-to-be completed Internal Medical and Wellness Center Tuesday in a diginitary-laden ceremony that seemed to be focused as much on the future of Jefferson Parish’s community hospitals as it was on the clinics and research space on Jefferson Highway.

The new center, slated to open in January 2014, will house 85,000 square feet of clinical space, as well as additional space in an adjacent building to support academic programs as part of the hospital’s partnership with the University of Queensland in Australia.

But speeches at the event, which marked the completion of a bridge across the busy road to connect the clinics to Ochsner’s main campus, included praise for the growth the nonprofit chain has seen in recent years, as it has gobbled up hospitals across the metropolitan area. It now runs nine hospitals in the state, along with more than 60 clinics, and is Louisiana’s largest private employer.

“The bridge that stands behind us today is a sign of our growth,” said James Maurin, chairman of system’s board of directors.

Maurin described partnerships as a key part of Ochsner’s continuing growth, and of health care more generally in the region. And, while never directly addressed by speakers at the event, it was a reminder of a future potential partnership now on the table.

Ochsner is one of three finalists bidding to take over the financially ailing East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center. Also in competition are Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, which runs Children’s Hospital, Touro Infirmary, and recently took over the public hospital in downtown New Orleans, and HCA, a national company that runs the Tulane Medical Center.

The hospital boards are now studying privatization proposals from all three groups in the wake of last month’s Parish Council vote allowing the hospitals to be leased without a public referendum. Selection of a finalist “suitor,” as the three companies have been called, is expected by early September.

Ochsner President and CEO Warner Thomas denied the event was timed as part of a charm offensive aimed at the hospital boards as they pore over the bids. The ceremony was scheduled a year ago to coincide with a meeting of the hospital’s board, Thomas said.

The health system, which with its main campus right outside New Orleans, has been a traditional rival of the East Jefferson hospital, something some have speculated could play into the decision over whether to allow them to take over the other centers.

Without confirming Ochsner was one of the three finalists, Thomas said the company would be a good partner for any hospital.

During his speech, Thomas laid out a vision of a health care corridor on Jefferson Highway focused around the growth of Ochsner’s original hospital and its new clinic. He said such an effort could bring in national and international patients, but would not be in direct competition with a similar medical corridor focused on the University Medical Center and Veterans Affairs hospital on Canal Street in New Orleans.

“I believe we can create a national health care destination,” he said.

The event was attended by a wide swath of Jefferson Parish’s political elite, including several parish councilmen, state representatives and the leaders of business groups. Parish President John Young and state Senate President John Alario both sang the praises of the hospital in speeches.

“This is the type of ongoing investment needed to serve the citizens of this state and this country,” said Alario, R-Westwego.

Jefferson Chamber President Todd Murphy, who emceed the event, said his organization was not wading into the issue of which company should get the contract to run the parish hospitals. But he praised Ochsner as an important economic force in the parish.

“We’re the Jefferson Chamber. We’ve always been there for Ochsner and Ochsner has always been there for us,” Murphy said.