FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Neighborhoods in New Orleans that once filled with water are again filling up with people. But they're finding familiar hospitals and clinics have closed. As NPR's Rob Ballenger reports from New Orleans, that's changed how hard city residents have to work to find medical care.
ROB BALLENGER: It's sunrise along a desolate highway in eastern New Orleans. A security guard unlocks the gate of a parking lot. He holds a clipboard and walks down a line of cars and drivers waiting outside.
SECURITY GUARD: Good morning ma'am. How are you?
Unidentified Woman: Fine and you?
SECURITY GUARD: Good. Medical and dental?
Unidentified Woman: Medical.
SECURITY GUARD: All right.
BALLENGER: This woman's been waiting since 4:30 to get inside the gate and onto a waiting list for free healthcare at the Operation Blessing Clinic. About 10,000 New Orleans residents have visited the clinic, housed in a mobile home, since it opened in the spring. Founded by Christian evangelist Pat Robertson, the clinic's volunteer doctors and nurses do everything from wrapping wounds to pulling teeth and filling prescriptions. Harold Herst(ph) is here for a cancer test.
Mr. HAROLD HERST (Patient, Operation Blessing Clinic): She's going to draw my blood for prostate because I'm over 40, you know.
BALLENGER: After a long wait, He sits down with a nurse. She gently works a needle into his arm.
Mr. HERST: You're good at this.
Unidentified Woman #1: How can you tell I'm good at this?
Mr. HERST: Well, I figured you don't hear me howling.
BALLENGER: Many of the patients at Operation Blessing come from outside the city, too. They're hoping to return to homes in the Lower 9th Ward and other parts of the city that are under reconstruction. They visit the clinic as they checked on the rebuilding. Herst came here from his temporary home across town.
Mr. HERST: I can't go to my house right now, you know, because I - I gutted my home out.
BALLENGER: Where would you go for medical treatment if you weren't coming here?
Mr. HERST: That's a good question.
BALLENGER: New Orleans' thousands of low-income residents, most uninsured, had relied for decades on a downtown hospital with free care. But when the hurricane shut it down permanently, the sick and injured went wherever they could.
Ms. DOROTHY DAVIDSON (Volunteer, Operation Blessing Clinic): There were a lot of tent and trailer clinics all over the city.
BALLENGER: Dorothy Davidson helps manage Operation Blessing. She says after Katrina, medical personnel were scattered.
Ms. DAVIDSON: And the people would be there for a week, a few weeks, a month, two months and then they'd be gone and then the people would be scrambling again for medication. I think that we're their first step back to normalcy.
BALLENGER: Operation Blessing represents a new trend in New Orleans. Primary care is shifting from downtown hospitals to independent clinics. And the clinics are coming to communities that need them the most, including the heavily damaged Lower 9th Ward where a renovated house is being transformed into a medical facility. Alice Craft-Courney(ph) is founder.
Ms. ALICE CRAFT-COURNEY (Founder, Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic): And if you go to your right we have two examination rooms. The first one that you see…
BALLENGER: The Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic is expected to open in the coming weeks after private donations and grassroots initiative. Craft-Courney says clinics like this fill an immediate need.
Ms. CRAFT-COURNEY: We're really very much in the preliminary state of how we're going to work and who we're going to associate with as for us referring outpatients to a hospital. And we're just kind of working as we go.
BALLENGER: Craft-Courney predicts her clinic will have to expand soon. Meantime, Louisiana State University, which ran the now defunct Emergency Room Service says it wants to stir residents toward neighborhood clinics. It even plans to build a few of its own. But until then, New Orleans residents will line up at clinics like the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic and Operation Blessing. Dorothy Davidson with Operation Blessing, she's then becoming a permanent part of the New Orleans healthcare system.
Ms. DAVIDSON: We'd like to see somebody here in the community take this clinic over and keep it going as a sliding skill clinic. And in time, there will be local doctors back. East Orleans will return. And, you know, I can't tell you what the time frame will be, but it will.
BALLENGER: Davidson is talking to two local healthcare providers about taking over Operation Blessing starting next summer. The goal is to keep it alive. She's optimistic. She says there's a more than 50 percent chance one of those providers will adopt her clinic.
Rob Ballenger, NPR News, New Orleans.