Health care in New Orleans was in a state of crisis after the city flooded in 2005, and government officials responded by permanently closing Charity Hospital, the largest pre-Katrina medical provider. Prior to the storm, it served 2/3rds of the uninsured in the Crescent City (Taylor, 2007).
Despite massive public expenditures that have lined corporate pockets in the Katrina rebuilding process, adequate resources have not been furnished to rebuild the health care system in New Orleans, and the region still faces a major shortage of facilities and mental health professionals (Lamberg, 2008). Prior to Katrina, 400 beds were available for those suffering a mental health condition (Cornisi, 2009). Now there are 100.
According to the United Health Foundation’s 2008 rankings, Louisiana ranks dead last in health services in the U.S., and most of the problems are concentrated in New Orleans (Mock, 2009). “The cancer rate is an astronomical 256.7 per 100,000 residents (in the state, 202 per 100,000); the HIV/AIDS infection rate is 40 per 100,000 (in the state, 16 per 100,000) and the suicide rate 12.3 per 100,000 (in the state, 7.4 per 100,000).”
Rates of suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression usually disappear within two years following a disaster, but this has not happened with Katrina survivors (Hirshon, 2010). Rates of serious mental health disorders have significantly increased since the storm, and suicidal thoughts have quadrupled.
So why not reopen Charity Hospital immediately? The complex did sustain damage from the Federal Flood in 2005, but hospital personnel — including nurses and doctors — rallied to restore it, and the facility was ready to reopen in 2006 (Corsini, 2019). In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Charity Hospital on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
A small group of concerned citizens have protested outside of Charity since its closure, and in 2008, a group of uninsured patients sued to reopen Charity Hospital, claiming that “thousands of residents lack basic health care, the chronically ill go untreated, and critical specialty care is either delayed or unavailable” as a result of the closure (Moran, 2008). Sixty percent of New Orleanians support reopening Charity Hospital according to a recent Small Growth Louisiana poll.
In short, the need for services is great, the hospital is structurally sound, it’s an historic site worth preserving, concerned citizens have protested and sued for its reopening, and public opinion is in favor of it. So why won’t Governor Jindal reopen Charity Hospital? The answer is simple: disaster profiteering.
As with the mass closure of public housing in New Orleans to eliminate housing for the poor and to benefit private developers, plans are in the works to build a new $1.2 billion hospital complex on 67 acres in Mid-City. This new complex would displace hundreds of residents and destroy dozens of houses with historical designations (National Historical Trust, 2010). An international architectural firm studied Charity Hospital in 2008 and concluded that it could be completely refurbished for 38% less than building a new complex, and two years sooner. This would save taxpayers $283 million and open the doors to thousands of residents in dire need of medical services.
Given the golden opportunity here to provide enormous sums of money to private contractors, Governor Jindal has had an unusually heavy hand in the new task force that was established to build this new hospital, even though it is supposed to be independent of the Governor’s office (Grace, 2010).
So the fight for just treatment of poor people in New Orleans continues on yet another front. An organization called Save Charity Hospital maintains a comprehensive website with current information, links, and a petition. The Committee to Reopen Charity Hospital, another organization working on the issue, hosts regular meetings and plans political actions. If the rest of the country turns a blind eye as we do with most of the injustices in New Orleans, this battle will soon be lost.