By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – The announcement that three major hospitals in St. Tammany Parish are moving one more step forward in their partnerships that began in 2014 is proving that local health care executives see more benefits for patients in the strategy that is becoming commonplace across the country.
Only weeks after Stirling Properties purchased the Louisiana Heart Hospital facility in Lacombe for $22 million out of its bankruptcy proceedings, the announcement was made to great fanfare last week that Ochsner Health System, Slidell Memorial Hospital and St. Tammany Parish Hospital will collaborate to utilize the 210,000 square feet of health care space in the center of the parish.
With dozens of business leaders and public officials in the audience, the leaders of all three hospitals were on hand with St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister to pass around accolades to each other for the rapid three-way partnership that continues to show that hospital leaders are happy with the results so far in the partnerships that were formed in the past three years.
Ochsner and St. Tammany Parish Hospital in Covington took the first step in that direction in October, 2014 when they announced a new partnership on the west side of the parish. Then it was extremely shocking to many in April, 2015 when former health care competitors Ochsner and Slidell Memorial Hospital announced they had formed a partnership.
In both cases the dramatic changes in the country’s health care picture following the approval of Obamacare—the first mandatory national health care plan—were cited as a prime reason that more collaboration was on the horizon. Local hospital leaders said it was necessary for medical providers to cope with federal dollars getting tighter, and reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid being reduced.
The former Heart Hospital buildings will now be the site of what is called a post-acute care hospital that will be utilized by Ochsner, SMH and St. Tammany Hospital. It will take 12 to 18 months to open all phases of the facility that will include a 30-bed long-term acute care unit, a 25-bed skilled nursing facility and a 30-bed inpatient rehabilitation unit. Additionally, some space will be renovated to create a North Shore Service Center for administrative offices of all kinds.
Long-term acute care has been identified as an area of greater need for local hospitals, Slidell Memorial CEO Bill Davis explained. He said that many patients go to a hospital for services, but still need long-term care in a facility since they are not completely ready to be released and go home.
Previously there were too many patients kept in the high-level and high-cost situation of the local hospitals, when they did not, in fact, need that kind of care.
“If you consider someone who no longer needs 24/7 nursing care or other services, but they are still staying in the hospital because we don’t have a long-term acute care facility for them, it is costing a lot more money to do that,” he said.
“Many of those patients have improved and don’t need that kind of specialized care all day and night, but we have no other option to care for them so we have to keep them in the hospital. It costs a lot more money to do that,” he added. “With this facility we can adjust the staffing or services to perhaps have one or two fewer nurses or other staff to watch patients. It’s simply another way to trim costs where we don’t need that kind of care.”
The 25-bed skilled nursing facility is another step for patients working through a short-term rehabilitation or for those suffering with a chronic condition that needs longer term care, while the 30-bed inpatient rehab unit is another stage of getting ready to go home, but in a situation that allows it without the intense 24/7 hospital care.
Davis went on to explain that the partnership with the other two hospitals allows them to have one such facility, rather than all three hospitals creating their own.
“Not only does this help with costs for all the hospitals, but it provides better care since we have a dedicated staff that is doing the same thing over-and-over with the patients there. It’s simply the idea that practice makes perfect. Not only does this situation improve our cost element, but it also improves the quality element of the care we are all providing in these situations,” he added.
The Heart Hospital announced plans to file for bankruptcy in January of 2017 and after closing its doors there was intense speculation about what would happen to the facility that opened in 2003. Stirling Properties, which is invested in a wide array of developments from health care to shopping centers, surprised many three weeks ago when it was announced they had purchased the property.
“We initially saw it simply as a real estate investment,” Stirling Vice-President of Development Townsend Underhill said. “But we had very quick conversations with some of the major hospitals in the parish and we knew there was a distinct possibility one or more of them would lease some of this space.”
Instead, the hospitals will take over all of the property, but without spending their own money to buy the land and buildings.
“One of the reasons this worked out better for us to buy it and lease it to them, rather than the hospitals buying it, is because it is a lot more difficult for them to get into a bankruptcy situation than it is for us,” Underhill said. “Plus there are capital investment issues and they might have had more hurdles to get over than we did to purchase it.”
Ochsner Health Systems CEO Warner Thomas said there will be a $5 million to $10 million investment in the buildings over the next five years, not to mention the creation of 125 more jobs. Additionally, 190 existing jobs through the administration of the hospitals will be retained and move there.
“A lot of North Shore residents come across the lake to the South Shore for this work and now a lot of them are going to be able to stay on the North Shore for their jobs,” he said.
Brister was among the leaders of the hospital who praised the quick agreement for the hospital to be put back into commerce.
“I can’t remember when such a major operation happened so seamlessly and so flawlessly,” she said. “It’s a testimony to the commitment these hospitals have to health care for our residents in St. Tammany Parish.”
St. Tammany Hospital CEO Patti Ellish said “this strikes at the heart of our mission—for all of us—and continues to expand services to keep our North Shore residents from going to the South Shore. The partnership we’ve had with Ochsner has already brought about many improvements such as pediatric sub-specialties, a dedicated pediatric ER, a comprehensive neuroscience program, oncology and infusion improvements and more.”
Ellish said this next step in the partnership is also going to include joining the Ochsner Electronic Medical Records system, which will allow doctors and health care providers the opportunity to access patient records throughout the region.
Davis added, “This makes sense in the delivery of the best care for everyone. We are committed to care close to home—this is a great day for the citizens of St. Tammany Parish.”
The three hospitals provide nearly 7,000 jobs in St. Tammany Parish and the dedicated Service Center will add to that number, Warner said.