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Saving New Orleans’ Charity Hospital

by CARL GINSBURG

Nowhere is Barack Obama’s continuation of Bush-era policies and practices being felt more keenly and with more injury than in New Orleans, where a diminished population still struggles, four years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, and an historic public hospital – Charity Hospital – remains shuttered, closed to all, especially out of bounds to thousands of indigent patients who relied upon it for access to medical care.

Our country’s response to New Orleans was and continues to be a national disgrace, a clear sign that the pyramid scheme that operates on Wall Street to soak the working family and reward the irresponsible rich has its parallel in urban policy, where privileged communities receive attention without delay, as other neighborhoods struggle for essential services.

Charity Hospital opened its doors on May 10, 1736, providing medical care to the poor.  It has been part of the unique state-wide “Charity hospital system”, initiated by former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, for the past 70 years.  “Big Charity”, as it is called, was the only Level 1 Trauma Center in metro New Orleans, providing both primary and specialty care, a facility that received emergency patients from throughout the city, without regard to insurance.  Big Charity was THE safety net facility, providing the bulk of free medical services in admissions, births and ER visits (with one of the busiest ER rooms in the U.S.) for New Orleans.

Before Katrina, more than one in five Louisiana residents were without health coverage, a result of high poverty rates and limits on Medicaid enrollment.  There was no facility of more importance to New Orleans, especially for poor, minority residents.     When Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, Big Charity’s basement was flooded,

there was roof damage and windows broken.  Understanding its essential importance, a team sprang into action – doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, residents, volunteers, the 82nd Airborne, Seabees, and other military groups pitched in to restore the facility.  “The building’s twenty floors were cleared of perishable refuse,” reported the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative.  “Floodwaters… were drained.  Electrical switches, although ruined by the flooding, were restored.  As a result, Charity Hospital’s first three floors, housing its world-class Level 1 Trauma Center, scores of outpatient clinics and its 97-bed psychiatric Crisis Intervention Unit, were prepared to reopen within a month of Hurricane Katrina.”   Within a month.  But Big Charity never reopened.  Imagine the let down.

It seems that in this land where one man’s demise is another’s opportunity, where the most vulnerable pay the most interest, where owner confidence trumps consumer confidence…  the loss of Big Charity presented a golden opportunity for some developers, builders and real estate speculators.  Louisiana State University (LSU), with the support of the state’s governor, the mayor, city council, and banking on FEMA funding, announced plans to build a new hospital, across the street from a proposed new VA hospital, the two together costing approximately $2 billion and due to open in 2013.  Experts say the opening would be closer to 2016.    That’s a long time from now, which translates into a lot of money to be had.  It is a bonanza for a few, an enduring disaster for many others.

Never mind the huge price tag, or the years of delay.  Never mind the on-going loss of health care services to New Orleans residents.  Never mind the years lost for jobs and economic development.  Never mind that 70 acres of an historic 19th Century neighborhood, Lower Mid-City, is to be demolished for the new construction—much of it to be in the form of  surface parking lots.

Never mind that homeowners and small businesses returned to Lower Mid-City to rebuild and resettle and will be swept out.   Says Mary Howell, civil rights lawyer and longtime New Orleans resident, “To deliberately tear down thriving, useful, productive, livable homes, businesses and cultural icons, many of which have historic and aesthetic value, leaving behind blocks of surface parking lots, is unforgivable.”

Never mind that LSU intends to abandon existing hospital buildings nearby, leaving vacant a swath of buildings downtown with negative economic consequences.

Never mind that architects, doctors, urban planners, residents and an array of supporters from the neighborhood and beyond have implored, petitioned and protested against these projects and in favor of gutting and building a modern, state-of-the-art hospital inside the limestone walls of Big Charity, a viable and sustainable option, which would restore health care to New Orleans years sooner and at a savings of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Never mind the secrecy.  Well, not so fast.  To Howell and others, what is hardest to swallow is the deviousness that surrounds these events.  America seems to be addicted to secrecy… the CIA and its torture methods, spying on dissent, foreign camps for our hostages.  But secrecy about the closing of the city’s oldest hospital?    Says Howell:  “Instead of looking at the overall impact of the two hospital projects, and considering the cumulative effects of location, design and abandonment of downtown, the federal historic and environmental review process was divided into three segments.  It was a clever sleight of hand by the Bush Administration, a sinister undermining of environmental and historic review laws.  The process was also used as an excuse not to do an environmental impact statement, which is a much more in-depth review.  Most of the statutorily-authorized citizen ‘consulting parties’ long ago dropped out, several denouncing it as a farce.”

It was the hope of Howell and others — who won’t let go of their community, won’t give up on its future, who want a voice and an honest debate about the place where they live, and who want health services restored without delay — to reopen Big Charity, stop Lower Mid-City from being turned into a parking lot, reconsider the wasteful billions earmarked for LSU and the VA, and it was their hope as well that these travesties would perhaps make their way to the desk of a new president.  After all, he believes in New Orleans’ recovery, he wants to be smart and efficient about health care expenditures.  Right?

Unfortunately, at least to date, on Big Charity and related issues, and it seems many others, this president has not changed the direction of the last president.  Will the pattern be broken?  “The issues involved in the relevant lawsuits are much bigger than just the New Orleans impact,” Howell explains.  “So far, the Obama Justice Department has taken the stance of defending this process in federal court. The popularly supported proposal to gut and re-build the Art Deco Charity hospital building has never been seriously considered.”     A community comes together against overwhelming odds and takes a responsible position.  How can this president – the “responsibility president” – turn a deaf ear?

CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com

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