Fight against LSU-VA medical complex in lower Mid-City continues
by Bill Barrow, The Times-Picayune
Friday February 13, 2009, 9:23 AM
Despite insistence from Louisiana State University System officials that they have made a final decision to build a new academic medical complex in lower Mid-City, opponents of the plan continue to lobby for an audience with Gov. Bobby Jindal and his administration's top health care executive.
Their hope is to convince the governor and Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine that gutting and rebuilding Charity Hospital from within represents a better option for taxpayers, future medical students and patients.
"We're considered obstructionists, but we're offering a better plan, " Sandra Stokes of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana said in a recent interview, explaining that she wants Jindal and Levine to hear it directly, something neither has done to date.
Levine said he is willing to hear what the group has to say. A Jindal spokesman said the administration "will continue to make folks available to hear their concerns, " but did not commit the governor's time to the matter.
The historical group has discussed its ideas with Louisiana Recovery Authority chief Paul Rainwater, who reports to Jindal.
Jindal and Levine support LSU's proposal for a $1.2 billion, 400-plus-bed academic medical center that would be built alongside a 200-bed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.
The two campuses would cover about 70 acres bound by Tulane Avenue, South Claiborne Avenue, Canal Street and South Rocheblave Street.
The historical foundation plans are detailed in a September 2008 report from the Philadelphia architecture firm RMJM Hillier. The alternative would have LSU rebuild within a stripped shell of Charity Hospital, with the VA building its new complex on the lower nine or 10 blocks of the larger Mid-City footprint. The idea calls for LSU to take over the existing VA campus adjacent to
Charity for support buildings or future expansion.
The pressure directed at Jindal and Levine comes amid increasing public acrimony between LSU officials and the groups that oppose the university's plan.
The two sides have traded letters and reports, including documents written by the state facilities office that reports ultimately to the governor, disputing various claims about the respective proposals. State facilities chief Jerry Jones and LSU administrators say rebuilding Charity would be neither cheaper nor faster than constructing a new campus, as the Hillier report says.
The preservationists, as well as patient advocacy groups that want Charity reopened, have intensified their efforts in recent months as LSU's financing plan has come under increasing scrutiny. LSU's project budget depends on getting a $492 million reimbursement from the federal government for Hurricane Katrina damage to Charity and then securing about $400 million on the private bond market. Neither is a sure bet.
The preservationists have met with LSU System President John Lombardi and Dr. Larry Hollier, chancellor of the school's New Orleans medical operation. The university says publicly that the issue is settled, particularly given that the Legislature already has appropriated $74 million for land acquisition and other initial costs, while including another $226 million in long-term credit through the state's five-year capital construction budget.
"These groups say they have not gotten their say, when in fact they have just not gotten their way, " LSU spokesman Charles Zewe said in a recent interview.
That attitude, Stokes said, makes it all the more important to get to Jindal.
Stokes said her group has made at least four attempts to schedule meetings with both Jindal and Levine, including an opportunity for the governor to preview the Hillier report before its release. Levine had one meeting scheduled but had to cancel, she said.
Levine said: "I'm willing to be an audience. I just don't know that I can offer them anything" when discussing the "complexities of engineering and architectural" debates. "That's just not my expertise."
Bill Barrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3452.