Last Modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1:46 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — The new leader of the LSU health care system slammed Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this year for slashing funding to public hospitals, months before he assumed the role that has him working with the administration on more funding cuts.
"Yes, he is saving money. But to save money and lose your soul in doing so, I have to ask if that is the Christian way?" Frank Opelka wrote in a letter printed by The Advocate newspaper in February — after budget cuts hit university health programs.
Seven months later, Opelka is working side-by-side with the governor's health care secretary, Bruce Greenstein, to shrink far more spending on the safety net system of hospital and clinics that care for the uninsured.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Opelka said the newspaper letter was designed to draw attention to "our cut after cut strategy, which was not helping patients."
He said the Jindal administration isn't seeking such a strategy in the latest round of cuts, which Opelka has been overseeing since August, when his predecessor was ousted from the job after clashing with the administration over the budget reductions.
"I want us to be mindful of the impact. I don't think one cut after another is the best way to determine safety net care," said Opelka, LSU's executive vice president for health care and medical education redesign.
Opelka said the Jindal administration is pushing for collaborations with local community health providers to try to protect critical services and patient care.
"They don't want a cut strategy. They want a partnership strategy," Opelka said.
The criticism of Jindal came when Opelka was vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, and before he was chosen by Jindal allies to lead the university's 10-hospital system.
Shannon Bates, a spokeswoman for the governor, didn't respond to questions about whether Jindal knew about the letter, but offered support for Opelka.
"Dr. Opelka has a strong background in health care and medicine. We support the decision of the LSU board and look forward to working with Dr. Opelka to transform the health care system in Louisiana," Bates said in an email.
The Jindal administration has stripped a quarter of the health system's funding in response to a drop in federal Medicaid financing, and Jindal says LSU must change its model of providing services and embrace public/private partnerships.
The drop in funding is expected to reach more than $300 million in the next budget year that begins July 1.
In February, when Greenstein and Opelka's predecessor, Fred Cerise, were at odds over $34 million in cuts to the network of public hospitals and clinics, Opelka wrote that "this governor is slashing services to the most needy."
LSU leaders said the reductions were tied to midyear budget cuts made by Jindal, while Greenstein claimed LSU had counted on money that had never been included in the hospitals' annual budget and had been recklessly overspending.
Opelka wrote that Jindal was "making changes that, were it not for the hope of Obamacare, are closing mental-health services, are limiting access to critical care and removing obstetrics care for the most needy."
The Republican Jindal opposes the federal health care revamp pushed by Democratic President Barack Obama and wants it repealed.
Cerise and the Jindal administration clashed when Cerise suggested provisions of the federal health overhaul law could help fill budget gaps in the LSU health care system.