Ask anyone around town and most likely he will sing the praises of Acadiana’s quality of life citing our world-renowned culture and entertainment. Why then, does Louisiana so often rank near the bottom of national quality of life listings? That’s because to economic developers, site selectors, business owners and potential new residents, quality of life is not just measured by the spice of your food, beat of your music, and frequency of your festivals. It is also quantified by standards such as health, education, crime, cost of living and poverty rates.
While great culture will go far in attracting new businesses and residents to the state and region, in some cases it is not enough. Measures need to be taken to not only repair the perception of Louisiana’s quality of life, but to make actual measurable gains and improvements to the standard measures, while at the same time highlighting our spicy, indigenous culture.
Louisiana frequently ranks low on quality of life listings for health-related issues. Health care is a major quality of life concern for Louisianans. Our diet, full of rich foods and alcoholic beverages, has taken a toll on Louisiana’s overall health. As a state we’re plagued with obesity and heart issues, as well as elevated cancer rates, infant mortality and teen birth rates. As a whole, Lafayette Parish rates better than the rest of the state; however, there is much room for improvement.
Lafayette does rank high (or low, depending on how you look at it) for cost of health care services. In the third quarter of 2008, Lafayette had the fourth lowest health care cost of living index of the 315 urban areas nationwide that participated in the ACCRA Cost of Living Index. The index measures relative price levels for consumer goods and services. The national average equals 100, and each participant’s index is read as a percentage of the total average. Lafayette’s health care index (85.8) is calculated from the costs of optometrist, doctor, and dentist office visits, along with certain medicines. The cost for a general practitioner’s routine exam, an adult teeth cleaning and medicine costs in Lafayette are the lowest reported in the state. Joplin, MO (83.1); Florence, AL (82.7); and Dothan, AL (82.4) are the only areas to report lower health care costs in the third quarter of 2008.
Anecdotally, we can infer that Lafayette’s strong medical industry is at least partially a result of our less than ideal health. Lafayette has emerged as the medical hub of the region with superior health care facilities and a pool of talented professionals and staff, as well as local innovation of specialized procedures. Growth in the health care industry has attracted workers at all levels, in turn making it a strong driver of Lafayette’s economy. The health care industry has become the one largest employment sectors in Lafayette Parish, employing an average of nearly 13% of the population — roughly 19,500 individuals in 2008. Since 2005 when the Lafayette MSA was changed to include just Lafayette and St. Martin Parishes, average industry employment has grown by nearly 2,000 workers, reflecting the growth of medical facilities and increased demand for services.
In the 2004-2014 Occupational Projections released by the Louisiana Workforce Commission, five of the top 15 fastest growing occupations by percent growth are in the medical field. This growing demand in medical occupations and Lafayette’s low unemployment rate (3.5% in November 2008) are causing staffing strains for some medical facilities that are having difficulty maintaining a full nursing staff. With education programs beginning at the high school level and continuing at the technical/community college and four-year college levels, more individuals have access to training with the potential to fulfill growing occupation demands.
Lafayette’s position as a regional medical hub and our entrepreneurial spirit has resulted in local companies experiencing growth and having national and international success. Through innovative ideas and technologies, Lafayette-based medical companies, hospitals and centers are becoming industry leaders:
• Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center has begun construction on a $200 million dollar hospital project at the intersection of Ambassador Caffery and Verot School Road. It has also purchased 40 acres in upper Lafayette near I-49 for future development.
• Over the next three years, Lafayette General Medical Center will undergo a $75 million renovation and expansion project that will change the hospital’s façade and provide added patient comforts. The first phase of the project will begin in the first quarter of 2009 and will include an additional 32 beds for the 300-bed facility.
• Women’s and Children’s Hospital is continuing expansion projects totaling $14 million dollars for 2008, including a new $13 million dollar medical office building. A $13 million expansion of the third floor of the hospital is planned in 2009.
• In October 2008, Safety Management Systems, National EMS Academy and Acadian Ambulance celebrated the grand opening of their state-of-the-art training facility on University Avenue. The new training academy which houses SMS and NEMSA consists of an 86,000-square-foot facility. The facilities include: the SMS administrative offices; education building with 22 multi-media classrooms, computer labs and 200 seat auditorium; restaurant; recreation room; lodging; a sea survival center with enclosed pool; a three-acre pond used for crane, rigging and lifeboat training; and a fire field.
• Lafayette-based LHC Group was listed in the top 10 of Forbes’s top 200 small businesses for the second year in a row. They ranked 8th in 2008. In December, LHC announced that it had purchased an Oklahoma nursing company, extending its reach to 16 states.
There’s no doubt that we have room to improve our overall health and wellness, thereby making Lafayette and Louisiana more attractive on standard quality of life listings. However, a distinction should be made between quality of living and quality of life. A region with a high quality of living is a safe and stable one, but it may lack the dynamic je ne sais quoi that makes living there fun and enjoyable. Lafayette has the spice, both figuratively and literally, that gives the region the great quality of life we are so proud of. It’s that quality of life that makes Lafayette and Acadiana an attractive place to live, work and play.
Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.