LSU’s power-play struggles

Providing tickets for legislators to purchase for the NCAA Super Regional baseball series at LSU was the least that school officials could do, given how much tumult, hostility and fear the university’s issues have caused at the Capitol this spring.

The flagship’s budget woes, leading those of all higher education, have been a source of rancor and tension between lawmakers and the administration. On top of that, an intense power struggle over the size, site and control of LSU’s proposed teaching hospital and medical center in New Orleans has landed in the middle of the legislative session.

With it comes the renewed bitter rivalry between LSU and Tulane, marked by some condescending statements about the city from the LSU president, veiled threats the medical school might pull up stakes and an old-fashioned hallway shouting match between the state treasurer and a school official.

The controversy might be worth the unpleasantness if it had something to do with shaping the future of public health care and hospitals in Louisiana. But the state seems headed in the opposite direction from what it’s trying to do in New Orleans. Yet, at $1.2 billion, the fate of the project commands the interest of legislators statewide.

LSU’s proposal to build alongside a planned Veterans Administration hospital on a 70-block tract in the middle of the city is opposed by preservationists, some doctors and community groups that want it to rebuild Charity Hospital, which they argue is the faster, cheaper alternative for restoring a vital health asset. Supportive of its cause is Tulane, whose medical center would be left isolated downtown if LSU and the VA relocated across elevated Interstate 10.

LSU officials are adamant it will not re-occupy the old building as long as it is responsible for public health care in New Orleans. That could change with passage of legislation by Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, an Algiers Republican, which would remove LSU from control of the medical complex and turn that over to an independent board of community stakeholders, including all local universities involved in medical education.

Tucker says he is not opposed to the new hospital complex, but he wants LSU to stick to running its medical-education program. He gets quiet support on that score from within the LSU community, where there are people who believe its health-care responsibilities detract from its higher-education mission.

Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the medical complex, but says he would sign Tucker’s bill if it passes. What Jindal really wants, he says, is for LSU to agree to have Tulane and other schools represented on the board of the nonprofit governing corporation still to be formed. LSU, at first strongly opposed to power-sharing with Tulane, is becoming more amenable under pressure. If the two schools reach some accord, even at the point of Jindal’s shotgun, the larger challenge would be reaching a settlement on the old building with FEMA and selling Wall Street on its financial plan—some very big ifs.

That might leave the preservationists feeling jilted, but state and school officials agree the iconic 1939 structure will be saved and put to new use.

The plan for the new medical complex, given its broad economic development potential, might sound like the future of public health care in Louisiana, but it more likely will be the last hospital the state builds. LSU has given up on erecting a new hospital in Baton Rouge and instead is forging a partnership with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center to train doctors and provide indigent care. The Jindal administration envisions gradually doing the same in other parts of the state with the exception of Shreveport, where the high-quality University Medical Center is the model that LSU hopes to emulate in New Orleans.

The state’s most forward-looking public hospital—which is ironic, given its original name, Confederate Memorial—trains LSU doctors, treats both private-pay patients and the uninsured, and turns a profit. It also is to its city what LSU had better learn to be in New Orleans, a responsive and respected member of the community.

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