Karl Warner was the last person to be loaded onto a Black Hawk helicopter from the roof of the storm-ravaged Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East in 2005. The hospital’s chief engineer, he had spent seven days wading through Hurricane Katrina floodwaters, back and forth between the hospital and a small maintenance building across the street, where he gathered diesel fuel to keep the hospital’s generator running.
In the nine years since then, Warner has bounced around, working at medical facilities in Lacombe, St. Bernard and New Orleans, waiting for an opportunity to get back to where he began his career 30 years ago.
With the quiet opening this month of New Orleans East Hospital, the new $130 million complex on the site of the former Methodist Hospital on Read Boulevard, Warner has finally received his chance.
“I feel like it got destroyed on my watch, so I feel like it was something I had to do,” he said of returning to the job of overseeing the hospital’s physical and mechanical operations. “I’m very excited to be part of bringing it back.”
Until July 12, New Orleans East had been without a full-service hospital since Methodist shut down in 2005. Since 2011, an urgent care center has served the area, but not a full hospital.
In addition to filling the long-standing gap, city leaders, hospital officials and residents hope the new facility will provide the eastern part of the city with an economic shot in the arm, helping to convince once-tentative residents and businesses to consider moving in.
The 80-bed hospital offers primary and pediatric care as well as surgical services in both inpatient and outpatient settings. The city estimates it will draw more than 20,000 patients a year from the East, Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward. Together, about 130,000 people live in those areas, city Health Director Charlotte Parent said.
The facility — like Touro Infirmary, East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center — is a community hospital, meaning it offers general services to the public.
In addition to 62 staff physicians — split almost evenly between internists and surgeons — the hospital will operate with a network of independent doctors who will have admitting privileges, said Greg Feirn, CEO of LCMC Health, the company that will operate the hospital. Physicians at LCMC’s other hospitals also will be able to admit patients, as will doctors at the outpatient Daughters of Charity Health Center down the street.
Overall, the new hospital has more than 170 employees including contract workers.
The hospital has 226 fewer beds than its predecessor at the site, but Feirn said it may grow in the number of beds, as well as in services offered and doctors under contract and on staff, as the area’s population climbs.
“Any new hospital will grow and develop as the community grows and develops and requires more services,” he said. “The New Orleans East Hospital will grow over time, and services will develop as they’re needed, as demand for services grows.”
Feirn’s LCMC Health — formerly Louisiana Children’s Medical Center — is running the medical center for the city. The company agreed earlier this year to replace the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System as the operator in an arrangement that runs for 15 years, with an option for two five-year renewals. LCMC will receive an annual payment of $500,000 a year from the city as a management fee as well as 3.5 percent of hospital revenue and reimbursements to cover operating expenses.
Feirn said the management fee will be used mostly to cover the overhead costs associated with the hospital’s billing and collection system. Under the terms of a cooperative endeavor agreement with the city, LCMC also will put “up to $12 million” into the hospital, as necessary, to cover various operating costs.
New Orleans East Hospital expands the $1 billion LCMC Health portfolio to four medical centers. The company already operates Children’s Hospital, Touro Infirmary and Interim LSU Hospital. It also will run the $1.1 billion University Medical Center, now under construction in Mid-City, for the state, and it is in negotiations with the Jefferson Parish Council to lease West Jefferson Medical Center.
Operating as a network of hospitals provides certain cost advantages, Feirn said. For example, the same pathology group that services the Interim LSU Hospital also will service the New Orleans East site, making care more affordable at both locations.
The new hospital includes a six-story, 133,640-square-foot building and a 71,700-square-foot Patient Care Pavilion. The latter was built from the ground up over the past year and a half. The former, known as the East Tower, was part of the Methodist Hospital complex.
Although the hospital is now open to patients, it still faces one hurdle: It must win national accreditation from a body known as the Joint Commission.
The hospital must have admitted at least 20 patients before the commission will consider it for accreditation. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had admitted just six patients. Some 363 had been seen by the emergency room, according to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office.
The hospital has received required operating licenses from the state fire marshal, the state Department of Health and Hospitals and the state Board of Pharmacy.
The Joint Commission will make an unannounced visit at some point after the 20-patient admission target is reached. Garner said he expects to reach that figure in August.
“This is a project that will certainly jump-start New Orleans East,” said Ronnie Burns, who chairs the hospital’s 13-member board.
The hospital joins Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, a new Wal-Mart and the East New Orleans Regional Library as a stimulus for the huge section of the city. Burns believes the hospital will attract other businesses, both medical-related and not.
Warner and his wife, Debbie, whom he met while both were working at Methodist years before Katrina, have taken up their old jobs at the new hospital.
“We have returned here,” Debbie Warner said. “It’s wonderful. It’s a new beginning.”