Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hospital at risk

Posted by Jack Davis, guest columnist, The Times-Picayune

Published January 22, 2009

State government and Louisiana State University are undermining New Orleans' chances for quick progress toward a new medical complex. Whether through misguided planning or stubbornness, they are defending a plan that:

-- Adds hundreds of millions of dollars of unnecessary expense when state and federal resources are shrinking.

-- Imposes a long construction schedule for a new LSU hospital, delaying its completion by two years.

-- Invites controversy and more delays through lawsuits challenging the secrecy and flawed planning procedures.

-- Destroys a historic residential neighborhood that could otherwise provide essential housing for medical-center workers.

-- Causes City Hall to waste $79 million to buy land, demolish architecturally valuable houses and relocate residents from a site that wouldn't be needed by a smarter hospital plan.

-- Completely ignores the immense value of one of the nation's best-designed, best-constructed, still usable medical buildings.

Why are they putting at risk the single most important economic development project this region has begun since Katrina? Their plan may fail to get financing because of its illogic and waste. And then where will we be?

LSU and the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal are commendably right in envisioning a major medical complex and committing to put it in downtown New Orleans. But they are wrong in planning the project largely behind closed doors and ignoring at least one appealing alternative. It's not too late for them to start doing it right.

In 2006, the Legislature gave the Foundation for Historical Louisiana the job of assessing the condition of Charity Hospital, the durable 1939 landmark that has long symbolized Louisiana's commitment to taking care of its people. Lawmakers wanted to make sure, before LSU irrevocably committed to new construction, that Charity -- with its great location and its million square feet of interior space -- was being properly valued.

The foundation raised $600,000 to pay for a study by architects RMJM Hillier, who have deep experience in both hospital design and historic preservation.

Their August 2008 report demonstrated that Charity could be totally gutted and rehabilitated with new systems and state-of-the-art technology to create a new hospital that would work better than new construction, would be finished at least two years sooner and would cost 22 percent less -- $136 million less.

Keeping the LSU hospital in Charity allows the Veterans Administration hospital to move to the currently proposed LSU site -- meaning that the city wouldn't need to spend that $79 million for land and evictions for the VA. That's $215 million in savings -- before counting the benefits of bringing the biomedical district into reality two years sooner.

The state budget, developed in the pre-recession days of surpluses, now faces $2.34 billion of cuts this year and next, much of it in health care.

A rational Gov. Jindal probably will perceive that spending hundreds of millions of dollars unnecessarily just won't work in 2009. And President Obama's stimulus program surely expects higher investment returns than LSU's wasteful plan offers.

The state House Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing today on the proposal to rehab Charity. The committee should call for a speedy independent study of the costs and benefits of both plans. The Jindal administration should also insist that LSU be open with the public.

Secrecy and bad planning have put the medical complex in jeopardy. Let's save it.

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Jack Davis is a board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Smart Growth Louisiana. His email is

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