By Robert Mann
If Louisiana’s Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee wanted to learn more about the consequences of privatizing the state’s charity hospitals, it could not find a more knowledgeable and experienced witness than Dr. Fred Cerise.
Which, of course, is exactly why Gov. Bobby Jindal’s LSU Board of Supervisors won’t allow Cerise to testify.
Cerise is an internal medicine physician who spent 13 years teaching medical students and treating uninsured patients in the state’s public hospital system. Before then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed him secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals in 2003, Cerise was an administrator at Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge. After Blanco left office, Cerise went to the LSU System, where he became vice president for Health Affairs and Education, in essence running the state’s charity hospital system.
Cerise cares deeply about expanding access to health care to the working poor, an issue very low on Jindal’s priority list. (Actually, it’s not on Jindal’s list, at all.)
Of course, Cerise’s integrity and his willingness to tell hard truths are qualities not valued by Jindal and his bosses on the LSU Board.
The board fired Cerise last August after it became clear he opposed Jindal’s plans to privatize the state’s public hospitals. Cerise also strongly supports accepting federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program for the working poor.
Jindal administration officials denied that they ordered Cerise’s dismissal, but Jindal’s statement after his firing made it clear that the governor wanted him gone.
According to the Baton Rouge Advocate in a story last August,
When asked Friday for an interview about Cerise no longer being in charge of LSU’s hospitals, Jindal sent a prepared statement through his press office. “That’s a decision for the board and the LSU System President. With the changing environment in health care today, LSU’s health system needs a leader who can implement reforms that deliver services more efficiently,” Jindal said in the statement.
But here’s the problem for Jindal and the LSU Board: Cerise still works for them. They could remove him from his position as head of the health system, but they could not remove him from their payroll until his contract expires.
He still works for the state, which means when a legislative committee summons him, his employers really shouldn’t have any say about whether he testifies.
But that’s not how the LSU Board sees it, which should tell you a great deal about who is really running the LSU System.
According to Thursday’s Advocate, when the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee asked Cerise to testify about Jindal’s hospital privatization plan, the LSU Board denied the request.
State Senators told members of the LSU Board of Supervisors that they want an explanation for why the university system’s former hospitals chief, Fred Cerise, was directed not to attend a legislative hearing to discuss plans to privatize the LSU hospitals.
State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said he asked Cerise, who is still an employee of LSU, to come to a recent budget hearing. He said he was told that Cerise was denied his request to take a personal leave day to attend the meeting.
“That’s really disturbing,” Murray said Wednesday, during LSU board members’ confirmation hearings before the state Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I think that sends a really bad message.”
Here’s the very clear message this telling little episode sends, beyond Jindal’s well-known disdain for dissent in his ranks: Jindal and his staff are fully in charge of the LSU Board, down to which employee is allowed to testify before the Legislature.
My evidence? It’s circumstantial, but allow me to make my case.
Can you imagine any truly independent board of state government having the audacity to blow off a legislative committee in this fashion, telling legislators that an employee is not allowed to testify?
If a body, like the LSU Board, was bold enough to prevent someone as prominent as Cerise from testifying, it’s apparent to me that they did so with the full confidence that a) the Governor’s Office has its back, or, b) this is what the Governor’s Office ordered them to do.
Beyond rank stupidity, there is really no better, more reasonable explanation for the LSU Board telling Cerise he could not take a leave day to testify before the board.
And, consider this: why would Cerise be required to take a leave day to testify about matters that concern his official duties?
It’s fairly evident that Cerise was first told he could not testify. He then decided that he would take a vacation day to appear before the committee. That, too, was denied by his bosses.
So why exactly is the LSU Board of Supervisors so afraid of allowing Cerise to testify before the Legislature?
But the bottom line is that Jindal is still fully in charge of the LSU Board.
And he and his handmaidens on that board have a problem with the truth.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, they can’t handle it.