Gavel, court, legal, judge, lawsuit

(The Center Square) – A New Orleans social worker has sued Louisiana Department of Health leaders, arguing that denying her a license violated her constitutional rights.

Ursula Newell-Davis, founder of Sivad Home and Community Health Services, is not challenging the need for the license itself, only the state’s “facility need review” policy, which requires certain types of providers to show their services are needed before they can get a license to practice and receive taxpayer dollars through the state’s Medicaid program.

The Louisiana Department of Health declined to comment on the pending litigation.

“The people who denied me don’t know me or my work ethic; they don't know what I'm capable of,” Newell-Davis said in a prepared statement. “Give me an opportunity and let me help, one child at a time.”

Other states have similar laws though the more common term is “certificate of need.” Newell-Davis and her attorneys argue the review policy is enforced arbitrarily and serves only to protect existing providers from competition, potentially raising prices and limiting choices for consumers. The conservative California-based Pacific Legal Foundation says it is representing her for free with an assist from the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute for Public Policy.

Newell-Davis wants to provide “respite” services, which LDH describes on its website as “temporary care for the relief of primary caregivers from their caregiving responsibilities.” For example, if a family caregiver becomes ill, “emergency respite” can be an important resource, LDH says.

Newell-Davis says she founded Sivad to offer respite services to families with special-needs children. While many groups are able to provide similar services, such as family members, friends, neighbors, babysitters and care-giving businesses like care.com, she says she is at least as qualified as any of them if not more so.

Newell-Davis says she worked 12 years as a hospice social worker and three years at an outpatient behavioral health center before starting a consulting business in 2018 to aid mental health agencies, schools, churches and others who work with special needs populations.

In a two-page response to her request for a facility need review dated Feb. 19, 2020, LDH said her request was denied because she “failed to provide data and evidence to effectively establish the probability of serious, adverse consequences to recipients' ability to access health care.” The department also says it reviewed the number of similar providers in the region she wanted to serve and whether there were “allegations involving issues of access to health care and services.”

According to the lawsuit, LDH denied almost 75 percent of the applications for need approval made between January 2019 and September 2020.

“These applicants were denied not because of their fitness to operate, but solely because the Department decided there was no 'need' for them,” Newell-Davis’ attorneys argue. “The result is the denial of economic opportunity to qualified, aspiring entrepreneurs and the reduction of Louisianans’ access to care.”

The lawsuit argues the policy violates Newell-Davis’ 14th Amendment right to earn a living without being subjected to what it describes as unreasonable government interference. The policy does not protect public health, safety, or welfare but instead increases costs, lowers quality, and decreases access to care, the plaintiff's attorneys argue.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the need review law and court expenses.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.