The long wait for a Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans is nearing its end, as the final touches are put on the gleaming new glass and steel medical center in Mid-City.
The billion-dollar hospital, which replaces the Perdido Street medical center that flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has been eagerly anticipated not just by the 43,000 veterans the federal agency now serves in southeastern Louisiana, but also by city and economic development officials hoping to capitalize on the facility's proximity to the new University Medical Center to create a major new medical district.
"People have been waiting for this for a long time," VA Secretary Robert McDonald said at the opening ceremony for the hospital Friday, singling out a 107-year-old veteran in the audience who's been getting care through the agency since 1945.
The first patients will be seen at clinics in the hospital in the coming weeks, but it'll be nearly a year before the center — which was originally supposed to open by the end of 2014 — will be fully up and running.
The 1.6 million-square-foot hospital will have 200 beds and 2,500 staff when it is fully operational, offering both inpatient and outpatient care and a research center able to provide a full spectrum of treatment for veterans in 23 Louisiana parishes.
Those patients have been served by clinics and referred to either private providers or VA centers in Houston, Birmingham or Jackson, Mississippi, since the old VA hospital was closed after Katrina.
“We welcome this new chapter in our health care system with optimism and hope,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System.
The hospital was designed with significant input from veterans and is expected to act as a central hub for a health care system that will continue to operate clinics in other parishes even after the hospital is fully open. Officials expect that by next year, there will be more than 600,000 appointments at the hospital each year.
The hospital's opening is several years behind schedule. Acquiring the land and then removing contaminants early in the process pushed back the timetable. However, Rivera, who took over as director in early 2015, said that since those early problems there have been no major issues with the construction.
A brand-new hospital is a relative rarity within the VA system, where 900 clinics and other facilities are more than 90 years old, McDonald said.
Unlike the opening last year of the adjoining University Medical Center, which was filled with patients and staff moved from the Interim LSU Hospital over the course of a day, bringing the VA hospital up to full operations will proceed slowly. The VA still has 1,000 staff to hire and train, and ensuring that is done correctly takes precedence, Rivera said.
“I would rather be fired than hurt one patient because we couldn’t meet a deadline,” he said.
Getting the hospital up to full operations will proceed in phases. Starting Dec. 5, clinics at the hospital will begin seeing patients. The emergency room is expected to be open by mid-2017, and higher-end care will be available by the end of that year.
The hospital plans to work closely with UMC, particularly in areas where the other medical center already is doing significant work, such as radiation oncology and services for the growing number of female veterans.
The VA center was designed with significant input from veterans about what they find important, leading to some unique features, Rivera said.
“Hubs” scattered throughout the building provide seating areas where patients can socialize, computers with internet access, food, drinks and bathrooms so that veterans — particularly those in wheelchairs — don’t have to travel far for anything they need, he said. Patient rooms will have furniture that can be converted to beds so that family members can stay with their loved ones, he said.
The VA enlisted veterans' help to help test the hospital’s accessibility. Those tests included sending out sample appointment notices and then running through all the physical steps needed to get to an appointment to look for problems, Rivera said.
Like the UMC next door, the VA center is designed to handle potential disasters.
The energy-efficient hospital can support 1,000 people for five days without outside supplies, water or electricity, and all critical systems are at least 20 feet above sea level to allow them to continue operating even if the city floods again.
In case of disaster, the center is designed to handle twice as many beds as it will have during normal operations.
Friday’s ceremony was attended by officials including Gov. John Bel Edwards, a graduate of West Point; U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who did some of his training as a doctor in the VA system; New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; and Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
“Because we ask everything of them,” Edwards said, referring to the veterans who will be served by the hospital, “the very least we can do is give them the very best care in return.”