By C.C. Campbell-Rock
The Baton Rouge and New Orleans NAACP along with Justice and Beyond, a New Orleans coalition of civil rights, labor, youth, community, religious and business organizations are poised to stop the passage of House Bill 26, set to pass in the Louisiana Legislature. The groups are calling on House Speaker Taylor F. Barras, Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus Chair Joe Bouie, Reps. Helena Moreno, Walt Leger, Jimmy Harris, Sens. JP Morrell, Karen Carter-Peterson, Wesley Bishop and Governor John Bel Edwards to prevent the bill from becoming law.
Pat Bryant, co-coordinator of Justice & Beyond, said “HB26 is a reincarnation of State Senator Karen Carter Peterson’s SB224, which was designed to abolish New Orleans-based Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL), and put control of its property in the hands of another state agency, possibly in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
HEAL supporters were encouraged recently when Senator Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans), decided to table SB 224, a bill she authored to abolish the Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL), a state agency lead by Jacob Johnson, an African-American professional, with credentials and experience in public health administration.
However, HEAL proponents discovered that HB26, authored by House Speaker Taylor F. Barras (R-New Iberia), includes a Senate Floor Amendment tacked on by State Senator Fred Mills (R-New Iberia) that abolishes HEAL. Mills, a pharmacist is the chairperson of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, where SB224 died. Moreover, HB26, on its face, is a bill that allows the state control over property in Iberville Parish. Mills’ amendment is exclusively designed to take over HEAL’s property in Orleans Parish, while shuttering the agency.
“I was glad when Senator Peterson deferred SB224 when it came before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. Many of our New Orleans Branch NAACP members, Justice & Beyond members, SCLC members, other community organizations and citizens used our few resources to travel to the State Capitol, so that our concerns to protect the good work of HEAL and its present staff, could be heard, “ said Gloria Hall-Johnson, President, New Orleans Branch NAACP.
“HEAL is one of the few diverse opportunities for minority-owned businesses in our State to compete and participate in the medical industry in a fair manner. While waiting for a promised follow-up meeting with Senator Karen Carter Peterson, to discuss the permanent deferral of SB224, I was informed that the bill will be allowed to bypass the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and added on to HB26. That will destroy all opportunity for diversity and transparency in operations.
“The appearance of impropriety and racism from our elected officials to destroy the good work of HEAL, in such an underhanded, non-transparent and overall unethical manner is embarrassing and hurtful to the good citizens who have elected these legislators to represent our wishes and best interests,” Hall-Johnson added.
“We have a higher incidence of heart disease and stroke in Louisiana than in the United States,” Bryant said, speaking of the need to keep HEAL in New Orleans.
According to a Department of Health study, in 2008, heart disease was the number one killer in Louisiana and stroke is the fourth cause of death in Sportsman Paradise. Also, a Centers for Disease Control 2014 study (CDC) said “The risk of developing heart disease is the highest for men in Louisiana and is higher among blacks than other ethnic groups.” Sixty percent of New Orleans’ population is black.
“HEAL has the potential to change health consequences for all of our Louisiana citizens, black and white,” Bryant added.
HEAL functions as a quasi-governmental agency that assists state and local government agencies, nonprofit/501(c)3 organizations or other groups working in health care, health education, or the biological sciences in obtaining tax-free bonds to construct, renovate, or enhance facilities. HEAL’s current projects include health education programs for Holy Cross University, downtown YMCA and a Veteran’s Health Care Initiative by radio host and retired Army Reserve Major Tracy Riley
HEAL generates its own budget through a lucrative garage it owns on LaSalle Street; next to Duncan Plaza, in downtown New Orleans. Peterson’s bill would have placed HEAL’s work and authority under Governor John Bell Edwards’ Division of Administration, while dissolving the agency, its staff, and Board of Trustees.
“I am the author of a bill to repeal an authority I believe is ineffective. Some of the numbers can’t be disputed,” Peterson at an April 26, meeting of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee meeting, chaired by Senator Fred Mills New Iberia.
Perhaps, a New Orleans delegation, including Kim Ford, member of Justice & Beyond’s Sub-committee on Civil Rights and Major Tracy Riley, both of whom spoke in opposition to SB 224; a discrimination lawsuit Johnson filed in May 2017, against the State of Louisiana and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (whose report may have been the impetus for SB224), may have caused Peterson to reconsider and table SB 224. The specter of racism was raised by several onlookers because previous actions to abolish HEAL, prior to SB224, were handled by white men.
‘When a bill was brought before Louisiana senators that bypassed procedure, so that HEAL and concerned citizens didn’t have a fair chance to discuss how SB224 harms the constituents of the Legislative Black Caucus, our Louisiana Senate Leadership walked away from the vote. However, they did vote on bills immediately before and after this request. Now the citizens are being prohibited from speaking on HB26. As a result, my colleagues on the Civil Rights Sub-Committee of Justice & Beyond believe that we must organize to encourage our leadership to represent our best interests,” said Kim Ford.
Calls to several Orleans Parish state legislators went unanswered. However, Rep. Joseph Bouie, chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, said he was unaware of the Mills amendment on HB26. “I think it is inappropriate for legislation that pertains to New Iberia to include Orleans Parish,” he commented. The House only needs 53 votes to pass the measure. There are 26 African-American representatives in the state’s 105-member body.
In January 2017 Louisiana Legislative Auditory Advisory Council meeting, Johnson said he was the subject of a “witch hunt,” by Louisiana Legislative Auditor Darryl G. Purpera, based on his race, “according to sources within the LLA’s office.” HEAL’s attorneys disputed allegations made in the LLA’s December 2016 report, in which the LLA recommended a state takeover of HEAL, for greater oversight and control of the agency. “The legislature has the authority to abolish HEAL,” admits Johnson. “Just don’t criminalize me in the process,” he said.
At that meeting, HEAL Board Chairman, Attorney David Groner of New Iberia, on the Board for 10 hours, promised the LLA Advisory Council, that he would gladly recommend HEAL be placed under state control, if he found duplicitous services. Groner said Senator Fred H. Mills, Jr., R- New Iberia, chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, asked him to take over HEAL.
At the March 2017 HEAL Board meeting, Groner asked the Board to give himself sole authority to move the agency to Baton Rouge and to fire the staff, “due to financial constraints.” However a CPA report given by Luther Speight, showed no financial discrepancies.
On April 24, 2017, at the State Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting, Groner and HEAL State-at-Large member Bryan Jones offered full-throated endorsement of Peterson’s SB224. Jones was appointed by another committee member, Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.
In a phone interview, Senator Mills denied that his HB26 amendment abolishes HEAL. “My intent is not to abolish HEAL. The Board of HEAL is not abolished,” Mills said of his amendment. “HEAL’s assets would be overseen by the Division of Administration. I’m not abolishing anything.” What the amendment does, Mills offered, is to add “an extra layer of governance and greater oversight of HEAL’s assets.” Mills says he decided to author the amendment after meeting with HEAL Board Chairman David Groner, whom he appointed to the post after HEAL gained statewide status.
Groner told him that HEAL’s services were duplicitous. “Several weeks later, after looking at financial details, Mills agreed with Groner and Jones, HEAL’s vice-chair, thought the agency’s assets would be better managed if they were independently run.
Mills said he has not read HEAL Director Johnson’s discrimination lawsuit and he denied his decision was based on the LLA Report. Ironically, the report recommended greater oversight of HEAL.
Mills said the HB26 is not going to the floor on Tuesday but to Conference Committee because Barras wants to review the bill’s language. He said he has been getting calls from New Orleans and there is a possibility of “dual control” of HEAL assets.
However, a review of Mills HB26 Senate amendment gives total control of all of HEAL’s property and assets and management of its services over to the state’s Division of Administration. In short, it abolishes HEAL.
A delegation of New Orleans civil rights groups, ministers, health organizations, and others are planning to visit the state Capitol as early as Tuesday. The session closes on June 8.