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The Associated Press May 20, 2010, 5:53PM ET

La. House backs bill that could slow privatization

State lawmakers could slow down or stall Gov. Bobby Jindal's plans to hire outside contractors to run some of Louisiana's inpatient psychiatric treatment facilities, under a bill that received House backing Thursday.

The proposal by Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, would give lawmakers the ability to reject privatization contracts involving the state's mental hospitals. That includes two facilities the Jindal administration proposes to privatize in the upcoming budget year.

Edwards said lawmakers should have a say in contracts that would stretch over 20 years, obligate future governors and lawmakers on spending, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and fundamentally change the way the state provides mental health care.

"Before we go down this road, let's be careful, let's take our time, let's make sure we're doing it right and it makes sense," Edwards said. He added, "Why this Legislature would even consider allowing the executive branch to enter into contracts for this long, for this much money ... without legislative review up front is a mystery to me."

The 64-27 House vote comes as lawmakers have repeatedly expressed concerns about Jindal's budget recommendations to lay off state workers and hire outside firms to run inpatient psychiatric services and other state-owned health care facilities.

Edwards' bill heads next to the Senate for debate, where senators also are considering a measure that would require legislative oversight of the privatization plans -- but without giving lawmakers the ability to reject the contracts.

Opponents of Edwards' bill, including the Jindal administration, say the proposal is improper meddling in the state's contracting process and would slow down plans that could save the state millions.

"This is just another layer of bureaucracy when it comes to the way we do business in the state of Louisiana," said Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs.

Under the measure, the privatization contracts -- if they are for three years or more -- would require review and approval from the House and Senate health care committees and the Legislature's joint budget committee before the contracts could be awarded. The bill also spells out several factors that must be considered when the health department chooses a contractor.

Rep. Kay Katz, R-Monroe, said the budget committee already can review and reject contracts that extend beyond three years. Katz, chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said it was ill-advised to get the health care committees involved in contract review.

Edwards argued the health care committees should decide whether it was appropriate to restructure the state's mental health care delivery.

He filed the bill after Jindal proposed to privatize a mental hospital in his area, the Jackson campus of the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System.

Jindal's budget proposal for 2010-11 anticipates a $6 million savings by privatizing the Jackson hospital and the Central Louisiana State Hospital in Pineville. Layoff notices have gone out to 100 workers in Jackson, who will lose their jobs in July.

Edwards said he wasn't trying to stop the plans entirely, but wanted to make sure the state would save money and the same level of care would be provided to patients.

"This bill does not prevent privatization. It just makes sure the Legislature has a meaningful role to play," he said.

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