Future of New Orleans Health Care

With plans to close New Orleans' two public hospitals and much of the city's medical infrastructure needing to be rebuilt, residents are wondering whether they can stay and have their health care needs met.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New Orleans is also trying to repair its health-care system. The city still has only one functioning emergency room at the Touro Infirmary Hospital, which is where we found Dr. Kevin Jordan.

Dr. KEVIN JORDAN: And we're seeing what you would expect. You would expect some respiratory illness from folks going to their homes and dealing with the mold and the dust and the gook. We're seeing bumps and abrasions from people trying to move things and we've got--seen a couple of folks fall off of their roofs and had injuries that we had to treat and then a couple of folks we had to transfer out as a result of that.

INSKEEP: The hospital still hasn't returned to full service. And as people begin coming back to this city, other hospitals haven't reopened at all. That fact is very much on the minds of New Orleans area residents Chad and Lea Moreau(ph). They were holding their infant daughter when we met the family this week.

Mrs. LEA MOREAU: We don't know if we're going to stay forever. We're sort of up in the air as to whether we actually want to sit around and wait for it to be rebuilt.

Mr. CHAD MOREAU: I think it might be different if we didn't have a three-month-old, but, you know, it would be hard to live here right now, with emergency rooms being a hard place to go to. And, you know, it would be hard with just the two of us and it's really hard with a baby, you know. I mean, I don't think we're giving up on the city at all by any means. We love the city, but it's going to be a while until it gets back to normal.

INSKEEP: The Moreaus could not have been reassured by this week's announcement that health officials plan to close New Orleans' two public hospitals. One of them is Charity Hospital, a white stone building downtown. Authorities say it's so badly damaged it has to be replaced. Visit Charity Hospital today and you'll smell an almost unbearable stench from the basement. It flooded during Katrina. We went to the abandoned emergency room to meet with Don Smithburg. He's in charge of the hospital system that includes Charity. This structure was finished in 1939, shortly after Governor, then Senator Huey Long ruled Louisiana.

Mr. DON SMITHBURG (Charity Hospital): Huey Long was the father of the statewide Charity Hospital system: a chicken in every pot and health care for every citizen.

INSKEEP: Who did this hospital serve?

Mr. SMITHBURG: This hospital had two main missions. One was to serve anyone regardless of their ability to pay, and so what that meant was that over 70 percent of our patients had no insurance. Now, fully two-thirds of these patients worked. We have a working population who has little access to health care. Our second key mission is to be the primary teaching hospital for LSU.

INSKEEP: Now I know you've said you want to rebuild.

Mr. SMITHBURG: Yes.

INSKEEP: But what does it mean for the community that instead of spending months clearing out this foul-smelling place and restoring it to operation, you will have to spend years raising money, building another hospital, getting it open?

Mr. SMITHBURG: Well, as we speak, down the block we are starting with what the military calls an EMED and it will be a soft-sided field hospital.

INSKEEP: Soft-sided means a tent?

Mr. SMITHBURG: It means a tent, but get this, it's bulletproof. But that will, over the course of the next few weeks, evolve into hard-sided modular pods for operating rooms, a pod for ICU beds and then ultimately regular hospital beds.

INSKEEP: And that's a very important question for people deciding when or whether to come back.

Mr. SMITHBURG: And that is the other key component: What will New Orleans do? What will it be in terms of its population? Where will that population be? So how do we scale a public hospital? What we are designing is a facility that can have some flexibility as the population develops, but if the population is, let's say, 200,000 people fewer, does that necessarily mean there'll be fewer poor people? I think there's a reasonable chance that as the economy gets kick-started again, it will be based on tourism and oil and gas industry. Well, both of those industries require a significant number of service workers--low-pay Americans. But they may not have access to health care. So it's feasible that while the population is smaller, the uninsured rate could be higher and it was already very high.

INSKEEP: Don Smithburg of the state hospital system says employees at Charity Hospital feel so strongly about their mission they've had trouble giving it up. In recent weeks, they were scrubbing the floors, trying to prepare the building to reopen. Now the last few employees have nothing to do but to gather whatever medical records survived the storm. And a city that depended on this institution for generations will have to improvise for a time without it.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.