A conversation with John Spain on the Baton Rouge Health District

(Photography by Collin Richie: John Spain)

The Bluebonnet Boulevard/Essen Lane medical corridor is a disjointed, traffic-choked mess. Members of the newly created Baton Rouge Health District hope to improve the quality of life for providers, patients and researchers in the area while increasing the economic impact. The district master plan calls for a new branch of LSU’s New Orleans medical school campus, a Diabetes and Obesity Center, and a “midway boulevard” between Essen and Bluebonnet. But otherwise, the Baton Rouge Health District isn’t about building new stuff; it’s about making the what’s already there function better.  The Baton Rouge Area Foundation spent $700,000 to create the plan. As BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain explains, the work has just begun.

How did BRAF get involved in the medical district project?
We have a history with health care studies. FuturEBR calls for a review of the traffic congestion along the Essen, Bluebonnet and Perkins medical corridor. We said, “We’ll do the transportation part. But we want to look beyond just transportation.” We want to anticipate expansion. We looked at walking paths, creating new green spaces, connecting spaces. But we also wanted to position all of these fantastic parts in a way that was greater than the individual parts.

So beyond improving transportation, what does the medical district hope to accomplish?
We want to maximize the investments that have been made here, improve health care for our citizens and enhance economic development. We’re excited about the merger of technology with health care. Louisiana has tax incentives for software development. Could Louisiana be a place where health care applications could be written and massive data storage banks might be developed? So the idea that we would have a dual enrollment program where you could get a Ph.D. in engineering with an M.D. became very obvious. Who’s going to invent the next MRI? We think having engineers with medical degrees that understand both technology and health care is very exciting.

And that would happen at the new LSU medical school.
Hopefully, that would create a new pipeline of physicians for our community, and offer unique programs that might lead to whole new industries in the community. Every time a new medical school for Baton Rouge is discussed, people get upset because there’s not enough funding for the ones we’ve got. So this is a branch of the New Orleans LSU medical school. We’ve hired consulting firm Tripp Umbach to create a business plan. We have a desire to grow, but not at the expense of our New Orleans or Shreveport campuses.

The other big new investment for the medical district would be the Diabetes and Obesity Center.
We got all of the health care providers in a room and said, “If we have you working together, what would you do?” One of the things that came up was diabetes, which costs about $1.5 billion just in the Capital Region, and it’s only going to get worse unless there’s an intervention. So we asked, “If we could have a central place that doctors could refer their patients that are diabetic or at risk of developing diabetes, would it be more cost-effective?” And everybody said, “Yes.” Pennington has been working for 27 years on obesity and diabetes, so maybe we could locate something at Pennington. We’re drafting an RFP to find out if it makes sense and how we might pay for it.

What are some other possible points of collaboration?
Everybody needs a parking garage, but nobody necessarily wants to have it on their books. The medical district could build and own it. In Boston, they have a child care facility. You could have a combined laundry. You can share blood banks. We might have a breast milk bank. Infrastructure will be one of the priorities. An east-west, four-lane between Bluebonnet and Essen is not an insignificant deal. It will be very expensive, so it will have to phased.

What funding mechanisms are being considered?
We talked about a taxing district, but we didn’t talk about it for very long. We might use TIF districts to capture revenue for new infrastructure. It will depend on the project, but the idea would be helping to pay for infrastructure without asking the parish taxpayer to do it every time.

What about transportation alternatives, such as a gondola system?
We need connectivity between these silos. If money wasn’t an issue, we might have elevated rail. We could have a shuttle bus, but it would still have to sit in traffic. There are cities across the globe, such as Portland, that are using gondolas. They’re much less expensive than a train. Is a gondola a little far-fetched and down the road? Yes. But as part of a long-term vision, it might be a good idea. We’re also looking at bike-sharing.

With all of this collaboration, should consumers be concerned about collusion?
No. They’re never going to go there. These are things like building streets and parking garages. They know where the walls are.

What’s the next step?
They will hire an executive director. That person’s first charge will be to define the membership, board, sources of revenue, how much each institution will contribute, and the first priorities. The Baton Rouge General and Our Lady of the Lake took the lead on identifying people. They have discussed it with the other institutions, and there is a pledge of enough money to hire somebody.

More information about the health district is available at brhealthdistrict.org.


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