Lawmakers didn't follow the Louisiana Constitution in authorizing Gov. Bobby Jindal to close the LSU-run public hospital in Pineville, a judge ruled Monday, but the judge is not requiring the Jindal administration to stop plans to shutter the facility next week.
Judge Robert Downing said the Senate violated the open meetings law when the legislation was heard by its Health and Welfare Committee. He granted a preliminary injunction request sought by two hospital closure opponents.
However, Downing also suspended that judgment — effectively allowing the closure plans to continue — pending an appeal of his decision. The appeal heads directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court because it is a question of constitutionality.
Downing, a retired judge presiding over the case for District Judge Kay Bates, said his ruling fast-tracks the case to a final decision.
"This is the best way I can think of to get it to the Supreme Court ... so it can be resolved as quickly as possible," he said.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, intends to appeal the ruling to the high court, according to Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp.
The Huey P. Long Medical Center is scheduled to close June 30. It's part of a privatization deal that will move the central Louisiana public hospital's patients to nearby private hospitals, CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital and Rapides Regional Medical Center.
The Jindal administration says the hospital closure will improve healthcare for the uninsured in the 16-parish area served by the LSU hospital. Critics say too many financing questions remain unanswered.
Lawmakers agreed to the hospital shut-down during the legislative session that ended earlier this month.
The lawsuit against the closure was filed by Brad Ott, a public hospital patient from New Orleans, and Edwin Parker, a lobbyist for a local chapter of a public employees union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
The lawsuit alleged the Senate committee didn't provide the required advanced notice to allow for public comment on the hospital legislation. Downing agreed.
"The manner in which the notice was posted of Senate Concurrent Resolution 48 was in violation of the open meetings law, was done in an unconstitutional manner," the judge said.
Harry "Skip" Philips, a lawyer for LSU, said Downing's ruling "was a strained interpretation of the law."
A meeting notice was published two days before the committee hearing, with an agenda listed. The afternoon before the meeting, a revised agenda was posted that included the hospital closure legislation.
"They didn't give us time to rally the troops," said Ina LaBorde, with AFSCME, an opponent of Jindal's privatization plan.
Koepp said the Senate complied with its rules for meeting notices and agenda postings.
"Contrary to belief, we try to keep the public as notified as possible," he said.
The Huey P. Long hospital closure plan is Jindal's ninth and final privatization deal for the state-owned hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured. Two other LSU hospitals have closed under the arrangements, with their patients shifted to private facilities.
After he announced his decision, Downing criticized Jindal's decision to shutter the hospitals while also "turning down billions" of federal dollars available under an expansion of the state Medicaid program that the Republican governor has rejected.