Health secretary tells La. panel it needs to make decision

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt pressed a state health care panel today to settle on a financing structure for its overhaul plans and determine whether Louisiana should try to insure more people or beef up the charity hospital safety net system.

Leavitt told the 40-member Louisiana Health Care Redesign Collaborative that it's slated to give a blueprint on the proposed design of the health care restructuring in the New Orleans area, prompted by Hurricane Katrina, to Leavitt's office in a month.

The federal health secretary is critical to any redesign because he holds the power to waive regulatory rules that limit how Louisiana can spend the billions of dollars in federal health care money it receives each year to fund services.

But the collaborative has widespread, entrenched disagreements that have existed in Louisiana for decades: whether the state should rebuild and strengthen the public hospital system that historically has cared for the uninsured or scrap it in favor of a new model that lets more uninsured residents have access to something akin to a state-funded insurance system.

That system would allow them to widen where they receive care and would funnel more money to private and community health services. Leavitt is working with state officials on a comprehensive revamp of the health care system in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. T

hose parishes were hardest-hit by Katrina where many hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices were flooded and remain closed. He has asked the state to develop a plan that redirects current dollars, not asks for new federal cash.

No decisions on what the state should do with its limited health care dollars was made today, but an October 20th deadline looms to get a plan to Leavitt's office.