City officials met Thursday morning to try and solve a nagging $15 million problem: How to restore critical health-care money for LSU Interim Hospital cut from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s mid-year budget adjustment.

Hospital officials responded by proposing cuts to in-patient mental health and substance-abuse services now offered at the facility. Though Jindal’s office didn’t say where the cuts were to be made, hospital officials say many programs can’t be touched, leaving them little choice but to pare down the areas proposed.

After last week’s announcement of the proposed cut, local politicians have been proffering a draconian vision of a city that can ill-afford any backsliding in its mental-health and substance-abuse services.

The cuts will be implemented later this spring unless lawmakers in Baton Rouge can convince the governor to spare LSU Interim Hospital during budget negotiations. That’s not likely, according to Democratic state Rep. Walt Leger, who said it was unlikely the cuts would be reversed. And without their help, there’s not much Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council can do to restore the funding except bang on the bully pulpit and pray Jindal is listening.

The City Council’s Health, Education and Social Services Committee followed last week’s fiery Criminal Justice Committee meeting devoted to assessing the cuts and what they’d mean for a city where estimates say as many as one in four people are mentally ill.

The loss of money would cut funding for in-patient beds at LSU Interim devoted to helping the sick and addicted. But in the post-Katrina era, rebuilding the city’s mental-health system “has been a critical portion of the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans,” city Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo said. She proposed finding a way to restore the cuts and “continue this investment and reinvestment in the future – or face serious consequences.”

Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, chief deputy coroner and chief psychiatrist at the Coroner’s Office, stressed that in years past, “a lack of psychiatric resources in the city made this city a more dangerous place to live.”

Rouse warned against a quartet of outcomes that would ensue if the $15 million is not restored:

  •  “It will tie up scarce police resources,” he said. Police guidelines dictate that five cops answer emergency calls for mentally deranged persons. “This is a significant drain when they should be catching bad guys,” Rouse said.
  • “It will make interactions between psychiatric people in need and the police more destabilizing and more violent.”
  • “It will increase the number of psychiatric patients in OPP.”
  • “It’s going to increase the work at the coroner’s office.”

Rouse promised an increase in psychiatric evaluations undertaken by his office, and further warned that more mentally ill people would be dying on the streets of New Orleans.

Echoing a theme he raised during last week’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Councilman Jon Johnson focused his ire on the net loss of hospital beds New Orleans has endured in the post-Katrina period. Johnson took a moment to spell out his aggravation to Dr. Tony Speier, secretary at the state Division of Health and Hospitals.

“People in this city believe they need more in-patient beds. B-E-D-S.” Johnson said. “You all just simply don’t seem to get it. We need more beds.”

Those beds are coming – just not as many as before. The new LSU facility being built along the Tulane Avenue corridor will be a 424-bed hospital with 60 inpatient beds for mental-health cases, and an additional two-dozen beds dedicated to emergency room psychiatric evaluation and services. Charity Hospital, which closed after Hurricane Katrina, had 550 beds, about 100 dedicated to inpatient acute care for severe psychiatric or addiction cases. Johnson noted that most teaching hospitals in the country have at least 600 beds.

LSU’s Dr. Fred Cerise reminded everyone at the hearing that they’d have to come back to the budget table again next year.

Cerise, vice president for health affairs and medical education at LSU, is “anticipating cuts next year as well.” Citing a lack of detail on those future cuts, he said, “We are anticipating another set of challenges [but] I don’t think anyone is going to get caught by surprise next time around.”

This year, Cerise said, was the first time that LSU Interim Hospital had to stare down “dramatic cuts,” in its budget, where “a cut in resources means a cut in services.”

Jindal did not accept Johnson’s invitation to speak to the City Council about the proposed $15 million cut.

The governor was in town Thursday morning, but only for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Southern University at New Orleans campus.

A contingent from New Orleans’ state legislative delegation did make the meeting, including Leger.

But even as Leger said, “clearly we need more inpatient beds,” the Democratic legislator said he doesn’t think the proposed cuts can be reversed in Baton Rouge.

“Maybe we need to go to court,” roared councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. “That’s what I’m ready to do. I’m tired of talking.”

Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer used her Twitter account to push the issue:

“Please consider signing this petition against the Governor of LA’s proposed cuts to the public hospital system” and sending people to this online petition:

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...