District dissonance: the Baton Rouge Health District becomes a lightning rod for controversy as critics decry a lack of health care options in north Baton Rouge

(Photo courtesy Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center)

When the idea of creating a health district in south Baton Rouge was first floated in the city’s 2011 master plan for land use, FuturEBR, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Encompassing two of the city’s three major hospitals, dozens of clinics and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center—which are all clustered along the Perkins Road-Essen Lane-Bluebonnet Boulevard area—the district concept promises to improve health care, attract world-class providers to the area, and build a brand identity around an existing resource that would enhance economic development and benefit the entire city-parish.

But in recent weeks, this proverbial win-win has become a flashpoint for racial tensions and a symbol, for some, of the economic disparity that exists between the prosperous southern part of the parish and the impoverished north.

The issue came to a head Feb. 17, when the Metro Council Zoning Committee was supposed to sign off on the creation of the district. Instead, after a rancorous, two-hour meeting, the council deferred the issue for 90 days. Two days later, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which has been spearheading efforts to create the district, asked for the item to be pulled from the council agenda.

As a practical matter, plans for the health district will go forward without an official incarnation by the Metro Council. As Planning Director Frank Duke explains, the Health District concept was never anything other than a small area plan addressing development in the area of the hospitals in the southern part of the parish where there already are multiple hospitals.

“It did not create a taxing district or a governmental entity and did not direct how private businesses deliver services,” Duke says. “Its withdrawal has no effect on the ability of the hospitals to work together … and coordinate their efforts.”

Still, officially ensconcing the health district in the parish land use plan would make it easier to delineate the area and brand it to the outside world, says Portland, Oregon-based planning guru John Fregonese, who drafted FuturEBR.

“It’s something that puts Baton Rouge on the map nationally and internationally,” he says. “And that is going to help north Baton Rouge with its issues.”

Those issues are many, and access to health care is near the top. No one denies north Baton Rouge has been underserved. The question is how to address the situation, and who should be in charge of making it happen?

Community group Together Baton Rouge, for one, says it is working on a plan to develop more health care options in north Baton Rouge. It hopes to go public with its suggestions in the coming weeks. Separately, state Sen. Regina Barrow passed a resolution during the 2015 legislative session, while still a state representative, that created a committee to study the issue. But the committee has no funding and hasn’t produced anything yet.

Just because nothing has happened yet in north Baton Rouge doesn’t mean it won’t. Until it does, though, those seeking to make political hay out of the issue have a platform on which to stand, and they’re making the most of it.

—Stephanie Riegel

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