Yet another anniversary — and still no substitute for Charity Hospital

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By Sandra Stokes, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

The sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reminds us, as a community, how resilient we are, how we can work together to find solutions to the challenges we face.

It coincides with another anniversary.  Three years ago the Foundation for Historical Louisiana released its study on the feasibility of reusing hurricane-damaged Charity Hospital.  In the $600,000 study, one of the world’s leading architectural firms said that by renovating the Art Deco landmark we could have a modern, 21st century teaching hospital built and opened in three years.  Well, if the plan had been adopted, we’d have a hospital right now.

We’d have those thousands of promised jobs – now.  We’d have the economic impact, the research, the training for medical students, and we’d be on the road to becoming one of the leading academic medical centers in the nation – now.

Instead, we have desecrated a recovering neighborhood, we have abandoned our downtown, and officials are still looking for ways to fund and build a $1.2 billion Taj Mahospital.  We’re still trying to come up with a reliable business plan. The state’s own consultants say we can’t afford to build, much less sustain the current scheme proposed by LSU.

Three years ago, 77 neighborhood, community and civic organizations joined with thousands of citizens in calling on Governor Jindal to do an objective cost/benefit analysis to determine the best way forward. In June of this year, Jindal finally requested that the University Medical Center board hire consultants to examine all options for building and sustaining the hospital – so that it won’t bankrupt the state. That study, which reportedly advocates whittling the overall cost of the project by $200 million, is due to be presented to the UMC board on Thursday. And yet the Jindal administration still refuses to consider abandoning the Mid-City plan and refurbishing Charity Hospital, a downtown structure of proven viability.

Did the Governor mean to look at all options  — except reusing Charity, the option recommended in the $600,000 study that the state Legislature unanimously tasked us with sponsoring? (We raised the money ourselves, by the way — no taxpayer funding was used.)

What are his people afraid of?  That they’ll learn the LSU plan was half-baked all along?  (I think that has been made quite evident by both a study commissioned by the state’s own Department of Health and Hospitals, and another commissioned by the UMC Board.) That the closure of Charity Hospital will be proved unnecessary? (Check out this testimony by an army officer who worked to re-start Charity just after Katrina, one of many affirmations that the building could have been back in service almost immediately.)  Is the governor prey to the popular delusion that a new building is needed to attract privately insured patients able to pay full fare?  Examples across the nation belie that notion.  It’s  not what the exterior of the building looks like – but the talent and equipment you put inside.  A well-orchestrated educational campaign focusing on the reuse of a famous landmark with National Register status can surely erase unwarranted apprehensions.

So here’s to the ribbon cutting that didn’t happen this year, the jobs that didn’t materialize, and the health care that is so urgently needed. Instead of opening the venerable downtown hospital, we are starting from scratch in a legal, fiscal and political quagmire in Mid-City.

There is still time to do the right thing: Revitalize the downtown area by building state-of-the-art healthcare facilities in existing buildings.  Concentrate the BioDistrict in the cleared out land in Lower Mid-City and create the long touted synergy.  Let’s not risking losing the entire hospital – or any more time.

Sandra Stokes is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, a non-profit preservation group.   

 

 

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