Officials: Louisiana Hospitals Face Years of Recovery

Medical officials in Louisiana this week warned that although eight months have passed since Hurricane Katrina debilitated the state's public hospital system, it may take as long as six years before the system is stabilized.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

This week, medical officials in Louisiana announced it may take as long as six years before the state's hospital and medical systems stabilize after being ravaged by last year's hurricane season. Until then, Louisiana doctors continue to struggle with few resources to provide even the most basic care for their patients.

Reporter Rachel Gotbaum has the story.

RACHEL GOTBAUM reporting:

Dr. Ruth Berggren has treated HIV and other infectious disease patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans for the past five years.

Charity was built in 1930 as a hospital for the poor. It continued to serve the indigent and the uninsured until it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. During the storm, Berggren and her patients were trapped inside the 24-story building as flood waters rose. Charity is one of nine city hospitals that are closed due to flood damage.

And eight months after Katrina, Berggren says she still cannot get her uninsured patients basic diagnostic tests.

Dr. RUTH BERGGREN (Associate Professor, Adult Infectious Diseases, Tulane Medical Center and Charity Hospital): Sitting in the HIV out-patient clinic, taking care of an uninsured man who's coughing, I cannot get a smear on him to diagnose tuberculosis in the city of New Orleans. I have to send him out of the city, or I have to collect his sputum specimens and send them to Texas. This patient would normally be under the purview of the state health system, and the state health lab is not operational in New Orleans because of the hurricane damage.

Ms. GOTBAUM: Before Katrina, there were 2,200 hospital beds in the city of New Orleans. Now, there are 420. And the state has lost thousands of healthcare workers to lay-offs and relocation. Two-thousand nurses have left Louisiana, and estimates are that up to half of the area's doctors have also left.

Staff shortages and hospital closures have meant that many patients have no place to go for their healthcare. Medical records are missing and some patients have gone without needed medication, especially the poor and the uninsured. Dr. Tyler Curiel is an oncologist at Tulane Medical Center, one of the few hospitals in the city that is still in operation.

If Curiel suspects his uninsured patients have cancer, he must send them 75 miles away to a state facility in Baton Rouge for a biopsy.

Dr. TYLER CURIEL (Professor and Chief, Hematology & Medical Oncology, Tulane Medical Center): As we sit here today, the in-patient service for cancer patients through the Charity system, meaning the indigent care for in-patient oncology, simply does not exist. There are no in-patient beds for these patients. There are no physician staff to take care of these patients.

Ms. GOTBAUM: With much of New Orleans's healthcare infrastructure destroyed, doctors have set up provisional medical clinics in downtown department stores, a local mosque, and a former home for unwed mothers. And until recently, temporary medical quarters were also set up at the New Orleans zoo.

Both of the area's medical schools have lost faculty due to large lay-offs after the storm. Ruth Berggren says that as a result, medical education is suffering in New Orleans, and many of those faculty provided much-needed mental health services that now no longer exist.

Dr. BERGGREN: There is a concern that there is a big problem with suicide in this city.

Ms. GOTBAUM: So have you had personal experience with this?

Dr. BERGGREN: We know of two physicians who committed suicide after Katrina, and it was clearly felt by the community that these were post-Katrina related suicides in individuals who were experiencing severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms. GOTBAUM: The federal government has earmarked almost $2 billion to help rebuild the healthcare system in New Orleans, but many providers--including the hospitals that have treated patients for months without being reimbursed--say much of the money has been caught up in government red tape. So far, hospitals have only received about $5 million of their share. State health officials say they plan to give out about $100 million in the coming weeks to pay for out-patient clinical care in New Orleans. The money will also be used to beef up mental health services, to help combat the post-traumatic stress that many in the city are still experiencing eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum.

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