Baton Rouge Health District’s new director getting organized, planning for diabetes center

    Three weeks into her job as executive director of the newly created Baton Rouge Health District, Suzy Sonnier wants to develop a strategic plan to help guide the implementation of the master plan for the district, which includes health care institutions clustered between Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard in southeast Baton Rouge.

    She also wants to move forward with the development of a Diabetes and Obesity Research Center, which was highlighted in the master plan as a centerpiece of the district and a potential catalyst for additional health care and economic development.

    “It’s exciting because there’s so much potential,” says Sonnier, who served as secretary of the state Department of Children and Family Services during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second term. “But for me the most important thing is figuring out what we can do first that creates a domino effect for everything else—what will keep driving the growth so it will be self sustaining.”

    Before she can do anything, however, Sonnier first has to create a governance structure for the nascent district. So far, she is working primarily with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which has spearheaded efforts to create the district and funded the master plan, as well as the leaders of the three major hospitals in the market that have committed to help fund the district—Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, and Woman’s Hospital.

    It’s still not clear what that governance structure will look like, but Sonnier envisions a board of directors that will include the leaders of those three hospitals.

    It likely will also include the leadership of several other institutions that have played a role in the planning of the district to date, including: Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, LSU, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the Baton Rouge Clinic, Baton Rouge Orthopaedic Clinic, the NeuroMedical Center, Ochsner-Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake College, and the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.

    Other successful health districts around the country have based their board membership on the level of financial commitment the member institutions are willing to make. Sonnier says the Baton Rouge Health District board could have a similar structure with two or more tiers of membership.

    She also envisions establishing a broader community advisory board, as well as several committees and task forces that can work on a strategic plan to help guide implementation of the master plan. She hopes to have at least the main board in place within 90 days.

    While a lot of planning and organizational work must be done, Sonnier believes the district can begin to move forward almost immediately with one of its central tenants: the Diabetes and Obesity Center.

    She says a request for proposals to develop the center has already been drafted and that it could be issued even before the board is selected, though she says the board would necessarily have to be in place before the RFP could be awarded to a planning and development firm or team of firms.

    The center could be developed relatively quickly—within a couple of years—because it could be located within existing space at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, rather than in a new, freestanding structure, Sonnier says. According to the master plan for the district, it would cost about $500,000 to do a business plan for the center. The price tag for developing the center is still yet to be determined.

    “The DOC has tremendous potential quickly because we already have a place and a number of researchers,” Sonnier says. “Now, we need to look at the next steps.”

    —Stephanie Riegel

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