With Lafayette's economy trying to dig its way out of a $10 billion hole, the last thing we need is to dig ourselves even deeper. And yet that's exactly what's at risk of happening if our state legislators decide to prioritize political popularity over representing what's in the best economic interests of our community. Because that's the reality we face if our state government decides to back out of its financial obligations to keep University Hospital & Clinics open.
Let's start by reviewing where we're at for anyone who hasn't been following this issue:
- In January, Gov. John Bel Edwards introduced a budget that zeroed out funding for the public-private partnerships that run Louisiana's charity hospital system. In Lafayette that deal is with Lafayette General Health to run UHC.
- In March, LGH CEO David Callecod held a press conference announcing that his organization can't afford to run UHC if the state backs out of its financial commitment to the partnership.
- Last week, the Louisiana House passed a budget that also zeroed out funding for these partnerships.
Now to be clear, no one reasonable wants to defund these partnerships. But our state is facing another enormous budget deficit, and the only options being presented to resolve it are:
- Cut health care, which includes not just funding for charity hospitals but also mental health for the poor
- Cut TOPS, the popular program that offers free in-state tuition to Louisiana high school graduates
- Increase taxes, which many politicians are unwilling to consider
While none of these are great options, Lafayette's economy can't afford for there to be any consideration of defunding UHC.
If UHC closes, the first hit we'd take is the loss of close to 900 jobs. Another 600 jobs indirectly related to the hospital would evaporate. All told, we'd see roughly $70 million in annual impact gone from our economy.
What this all adds up to is that if Lafayette loses UHC, our community will be sicker, poorer, weaker and less able to dig our way out of the $10 billion economic hole we find ourselves in now.
But this only scratches the surface.
The next level to consider are the 54,000 low-income people using UHC each year who will no longer be able to receive care there. UHC operates one of the only clinics in Lafayette that accepts Medicaid.
Without UHC, many will lose their only viable option for primary care, which means they'll get less preventative care, which means they'll get sicker, be less able to work, and more reliant on welfare. This threat is most acute for Lafayette's children in low-income families: Sick kids underperform academically and therefore economically as adults.
Without UHC, other emergency rooms in our area will have to handle more patients, meaning longer waits for everyone, whether you're insured or not, with medical staffs stretched ever thinner. And this problem will be exacerbated by the loss of primary care options. Many UHC patients will fall back on ERs to care for whatever's ailing them.
Without UHC, our poor population will get sicker as its access to care worsens. This leads to a less productive workforce staffing our local businesses, especially those that rely on low-wage labor, like restaurants and retailers.
Without UHC, more people will be sick, which will increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases. Even if you live in a higher income part of Lafayette, viruses and bacteria don't recognize geographic boundaries. So now the health of our entire community is being put at risk regardless of whether you've ever interacted directly with UHC.
Without UHC, Lafayette will lose its teaching hospital. Teaching hospitals tend to have lower mortality rates compared with non-teaching hospitals. This doesn't just affect UHC, as Lafayette General Medical Center would also lose its residency program.
And without a steady stream of new residents coming to Lafayette, our community will have fewer doctors deciding to start practicing medicine here. That means longer wait times to get appointments, fewer specialists and fewer general practitioners.
What this all adds up to is that if Lafayette loses UHC, our community will be sicker, poorer, weaker and less able to dig our way out of the $10 billion economic hole we find ourselves in now. Who will want to move or grow their business in a community that can't take care of its own people or in a state that can't be relied on to live up to its commitments?
While much of this may seem obvious to you, apparently it wasn't to the six out of eight Louisiana representatives with constituents in at least some part of Lafayette Parish who voted for the Louisiana House's budget. Rather than support funding for UHC, these six Republican representatives — Taylor Barras, Stuart Bishop, Jean-Paul Coussan, Julie Emerson, John Stefanski and Nancy Landry — instead appear to favor allocating money to keep TOPS alive (the House plan keeps TOPS funded at 80 percent).
The last thing I want to do is argue against a program that provides free college tuition to students, but if forced to pick between defunding TOPS or defunding hospitals, the right answer is clear to me.
If we defund TOPS, here's what will happen:
- Some kids won't be able to go to college
- Some kids will still go to college in Louisiana, but they'll have to take on loans
- Some kids will go to college in other states
- State universities will likely suffer from lower enrollment numbers
While these are all bad outcomes, they pale in comparison to what will happen if we defund the partnerships that keep facilities like UHC open.
Put simply: If we defund TOPS, no one dies, and we don't put the health of entire communities at risk.
Now hopefully none of this will happen, as many in the Louisiana Senate have indicated that they understand the value, both economic and moral, of keeping the charity hospitals open. And it doesn't seem likely that Gov. Edwards would sign any budget that defunded these programs, as his stated goal is to raise revenues to close the gap.
But the fact that any of our elected officials who are supposed to be representing the interests of Lafayette are willing to even consider putting people's lives and our entire economy at risk is misguided at best and abhorrent at worst.