CANTRELL: 'I BELIEVE WE'VE PREPARED
OURSELVES AS BEST AS POSSIBLE'
After her inauguration May 7, Mayor LaToya Cantrell briefly listed several upcoming challenges for her administration and the city, including climate change, infrastructure, chronic issues at the Sewerage & Water Board, the opioid crisis and racial disparity, particularly in city contracts. Her first tasks in office are "meeting with staff and those I hired that keep government running, like right now," she told Gambit after she paraded around Armstrong Park with a brass band and a number of social aid & pleasure clubs. Those meetings entail "setting that vision, having them understand the points of command within the Cantrell administration, who they need to call, make sure those are in place so there's direct lines of communication — people know what the expectations are — but again, us working together."
That morning, Cantrell also emailed city employees asking for their feedback after working for a City Hall that "has been doing some things the same way for a long, long time."
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration spent its final weeks enumerating its accomplishments, hailing its more than $2 billion in capital projects over the last several years as one of its biggest success stories, seemingly ensuring that infrastructure projects and major capital investments were in the pipeline as the administration handed over the keys. "You don't know until you get in," Cantrell told Gambit, "but I believe we've prepared ourselves as best as possible and we're ready to receive what is the existing conditions and get to work."
Moments before people lined up to enter Cantrell's inaugural ball at Mardi Gras World, a barge on the Mississippi River struck a nearby wharf, a portion of which collapsed. A few dozen attendees in tuxedos and ball gowns waited on the gravel, wood planks and a slim piece of red carpet near the entrance until the New Orleans Fire Department gave the all-clear.
Quote of the week
"If a Louisiana girl can nail down this guy, great!" — Art gallery manager Ginette Bone, outside the Penthouse Club in the French Quarter May 9. Bone and hundreds more were there to see Baton Rouge-born porn star and director Stormy Daniels, who was making a personal appearance and dancing onstage in between filing lawsuits against President Donald Trump, with whom she claims to have had an affair. Trump denies the affair, but his attorneys Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani admit money was paid to Daniels to secure a nondisclosure agreement.
Entergy: Paid crowds at council meeting weren't
Entergy New Orleans claims that paid actors who appeared at public hearings to support construction of a gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East were hired "without Entergy's knowledge or approval." The New Orleans City Council nonetheless is moving toward its own "independent" investigation of astroturfing in support of the controversial plant.
A report from the local investigative news outlet The Lens found that dozens of supporters who appeared at City Council hearings concerning Entergy's construction of the $210 million plant were paid through Crowds on Demand, a company that does what its name implies.
According to a statement from Entergy, Crowds on Demand was hired by the public relations firm that Entergy hired to organize "local grassroots support" for the plant. That firm, The Hawthorn Group, was contracted to mobilize "up to 75 grassroots supporters, 10 of whom would speak, for the Oct. 16, 2017 public meeting and up to 30 grassroots supporters, including 10 speakers, for the Feb. 21, 2018 public meeting." According to the local utility, the contract with Hawthorn "did not contemplate or authorize that any of these supporters would be paid for their attendance."
Actors were paid $60 for showing up to meetings and $200 for "speaking roles," according to The Lens, whose reporting exposed a questionable but legal practice known as astroturfing.
The City Council — which has five new members as of last week — is poised to hold Entergy accountable for what critics say is a compromise of the public hearing process. At-Large council members Jason Williams and Helena Moreno issued a joint statement saying that while they appreciate Entergy's internal review, the council should lead its own investigation as the regulatory body for the city's utilities and make those findings public. District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer told Gambit that Entergy's admission "casts a pallor on council proceedings in general and how that looks" and wants to ensure the public is heard and part of that process.
Louisiana nursing home
reimbursements could face the axe if budget cuts pass
The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) began mailing notices last week to 37,000 people enrolled in Medicaid to warn that some of their health care coverage could end July 1 due to proposed state budget cuts.
The state operating budget approved by the House could gut four programs covering nursing care patients, people with developmental disabilities and patients receiving at-home care.
"You are getting this letter because you or someone in your household is currently enrolled in Louisiana Medicaid through the Provisional Medicaid, Medically Needy, Medically Needy Spenddown or Long-Term Care Special Income level program," the letter stated. "Because of possible budget cuts, these programs may end as of July 1, 2018, but the federal government must first approve ending the programs."
House Republicans said the letter, was an alarmist political move by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who opposes the cuts. GOP lawmakers called the letters "premature nursing home eviction notices" after Health Secretary Rebekah Gee and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne announced the potential cuts.
People affected by the cuts include more than 7,000 people receiving home health coverage and 2,700 people with developmental disabilities, as well as more than 19,000 nursing home patients across the state — including 1,959 people in New Orleans, according to the LDH.
Sixty-two percent of U.S. nursing home residents are covered under Medicaid, according to a 2017 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That number is nearly 75 percent in Louisiana. Roughly 31,000 nursing home patients qualified for Medicaid-assisted nursing home care last year, according to the LDH.
Managers of nursing homes operated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans told WWL-TV that the cuts could force their closure, as "70 to 75 percent of the residents" are on Medicaid.
The letter says the state will review each patients' information to determine whether they qualify for another Medicaid program.
New council off and running — in unison
The newly inaugurated New Orleans City Council— which includes its first-ever Hispanic and Vietnamese members — previewed its priorities at its first meeting May 7, immediately following its swearing-in ceremony alongside Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The City Council addressed neighborhood challenges, from the increasing costs of living and housing and the proliferation of short-term rentals to transportation, infrastructure and the Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) crisis. District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso III also initiated a letter to the S&WB last week reminding the agency that the council expects quarterly reports and outlining residents' frustrations; the letter was signed by all seven council members.
Over the last few months, incoming council members met weekly to discuss policy and develop cohesive policy plans before entering City Hall. The new members say they built a united front and camaraderie well in advance of their inauguration. "We're gonna work together, work hard and bring this city back to the people," said District E Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen.
Medical marijuana gets more support in Baton Rouge
The Louisiana Senate agreed last week to expand the use of medical marijuana in Louisiana to treat several more health conditions in addition to the list of medical conditions already approved for treatment.
House Bill 579 from state Rep. Ted James authorizes medical marijuana in the treatment of glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, intractable pain, PTSD and Parkinson's disease. House Bill 627 from state Rep. Rodney Lyons allows medical marijuana to treat autism spectrum disorder.
The current law allows for medical marijuana to treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, seizure disorders, epilepsy, spasticity, Crohn's disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. The law doesn't allow for smokable pot but for THC-less medicine processed from plants grown within the state university systems.
The Senate voted 25-9 to support James' bill and 21-10 to support Lyons' bill. Both bills head back to the House for final approval. "In my opinion it takes care of some things that should have been in there in the first place," said state Sen. Norby Chabert, who introduced HB 579 on James' behalf.
Louisiana's medical marijuana program has been relatively slow to get going two years after lawmakers approved a legal infrastructure for it. The university systems that are responsible for growing pot that will be processed into oil- and cream-based medicines (LSU and Southern) haven't started growing yet, and the state Pharmacy Board just recently approved licenses for nine pharmacies that will be allowed to sell the products.
State Sens. Dan Claitor and Jack Donahue, both Republicans, said their position on marijuana for medical use has changed over the years. "I've consistently voted against it," Claitor told the Senate. "But I can tell you from personal family experience [that I've] seen folks suffer greatly from cancer and get some relief as it relates to this. ... I've come to a different place now."
Bill complicates Planned Parenthood's bid to be abortion provider in Louisiana
A bill passed by the Louisiana Senate May 9 further complicates Planned Parenthood's efforts to become an abortion provider in Louisiana. The organization's efforts also are the subject of a lawsuit it filed against the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). Senators voted 28-5 to approve House Bill 891, which is meant to clarify existing law prohibiting public funding for entities that perform abortions in Louisiana.
The bill's provisions include a prohibition on public funding for organizations which provide Medicaid services in the same facility as a licensed abortion provider and — in perhaps its most consequential language — prohibits the LDH from entering into a Medicaid provider agreement with entities that are blocked from receiving public funds on abortion-related grounds.
Without naming the organization directly, the bill seems to target Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast (PPGC) — a Medicaid provider that recently applied for an abortion license for its Claiborne Avenue facility, the first such license it would hold in Louisiana.
"Planned Parenthood is affected — if they provide abortions," said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who presented the bill to the Senate for Rep. Frank Hoffman, R-West Monroe, author of the measure.
It sets up what Michelle Erenberg, executive director of reproductive rights group Lift Louisiana, dubbed a "Faustian choice" between Planned Parenthood servicing its Medicaid patients and being able to offer abortion care in the state.
The legislative roadblock could further delay PPGC's ongoing efforts to add another abortion provider in Louisiana, where three clinics (in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport) serve more than a million women of reproductive age.
"[It's] very clear that this bill is intended to block women's access to abortion by clearly targeting Planned Parenthood's ability to obtain an abortion license," Rochelle Tafolla, PPGC vice president of communications and marketing, said in a statement. "Our lawsuit has already outlined the various ways that the state is already blocking women's access, and we would count this as further evidence of their efforts."