BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's corrections department is contracting with a Texas company for telemedicine services for prisoners, rather than continuing to use the LSU health system for such care, lawmakers were told Friday.
The change is set to take effect with the new fiscal year that begins July 1. It's part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's push to privatize the university-run hospitals and clinics, which includes reworking the way prisoners receive health services that have been provided through LSU.
Telemedicine lets doctors give remote checkups through a video hookup and other electronic communications. That can shrink the costs of prisoner transportation and lower safety risks.
The Department of Corrections has increased its use of telemedicine in recent years to cope with budget cuts.
Louisiana lawmakers reviewing LSU hospital privatization deals Friday said they were displeased that the state would contract with an out-of-state company rather than use its own university system for the services.
"How could you not pick our medical school to provide the service?" asked Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
Thomas Bickham, undersecretary of the Department of Corrections, said US Telehealth put in a lower bid than the LSU Health Care Services Division for the work.
According to information provided by the department, LSU proposed doing the work for $2.9 million a year, compared to $1.7 million for US Telehealth, which was the cheapest of the five bids submitted to the state.
Three companies offered bids lower than LSU did, and the corrections department said the university system's proposal didn't include services for north and central Louisiana prisons.
"This was a competitive process," Bickham said.
As part of the Jindal administration's hospital privatization efforts, the corrections department will receive $50 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to cover the costs of prisoner care, which had previously been paid through the LSU health care system.
"We've been given $50 million, and we're trying to act responsibly with it," Bickham said. "And if we can get the same level of service — if not more service — for a better price, I think it's our responsibility to do that."
The Department of Corrections said the contract with US Telehealth was being negotiated for one year, with an option to renew annually for up to three years.
Some lawmakers expressed concern about the shift.
"Are we completely abandoning our medical school?" asked Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, saying he heard that other prisoner care contracts with LSU would be abandoned, as well.
Murray said the corrections department should have returned to LSU to determine if the university system could match the price offered by US Telehealth. He said the loss of the contract will shrink funding for the medical schools, which he said likely will either ask lawmakers for more money to fill the gap or seek tuition increases on its students.
"Does this company have to at least use Louisiana doctors?" Murray asked.
Bickham replied that at least half of the firm's doctors were based in Louisiana, while the remaining physicians would be from Texas. Raman Singh, medical director for the corrections department, said the Texas-based doctors will have to get licensed in Louisiana.
Jindal, a Republican, wants to privatize operations for nine of the 10 LSU hospitals that care for the uninsured. One hospital privatization has been complete, with four others are set to take effect Monday. Lawmakers have little authority over the contracts.
Other concerns raised Friday involved women's health service limitations planned for LSU's hospital in Bogalusa, in rural Washington Parish, which will be taken over Jan. 6 by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System.
Sen. Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville, and Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, said they were concerned that women won't have access to services that will be discontinued because of the private operator's affiliation with the Catholic Church.