Two major hospitals are beginning to take shape on nearly 70 acres in Mid-City, with gleaming glass and concrete façades rising over Canal Street near Interstate 10.
Both billion-dollar projects, which will replace the downtown LSU and Veterans Affairs hospitals that were shuttered after Hurricane Katrina, are still far from finished. But they are moving forward toward completion in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center reached its first major milestone last month when crews completed major construction work on the former Pan American Life Insurance Co. building on the site. The building, which will be used for administrative and training facilities, is now being furnished, and officials expect to move some operations there by July, said Liz Failla, the project engineer for the VA project, which is known as “Project Legacy.”
Work on the rest of the giant medical center is expected to continue until early 2016, with the new hospital coming online sometime later that year.
“This is so important to our veterans and our community because it’s been so long since they’ve had the facility they deserve,” Failla said.
The project oncehad a completion date of 2014, but delays in transferring the land held up construction. Since then, the project has been on time, she said.
Roughly 60,000 veterans are enrolled with the New Orleans medical center, and about 40,000 use its services every year, Failla said. Those numbers are expected to increase with the opening of the new center, which will receive referrals from across the Gulf Coast.
The medical center is largely for veterans in need of short-term care. Those who need long-term hospital stays will receive care at other VA facilities in the South.
The New Orleans center will have 120 acute care beds, 20 psychiatric beds, 40 beds for rehabilitation, and 20 beds for hospice and palliative care.
Much of the medical center’s design was based on the needs of injured veterans and the specific physical and mental issues they face, as determined in part by focus groups with veterans. That process led to relatively simple tweaks, such as ensuring that mirrors are tilted to appropriate angles for those in wheelchairs, but also more complicated design elements aimed at meeting other challenges faced by veterans, Failla said.
“This is a facility for veterans. We felt it was extremely important to get to know their needs and wants,” she said.
For example, the design will try to avoid the often mazelike feeling of many medical facilities, which can be problematic for veterans who become nervous when they are unsure where they are, Failla said. The facility also is being designed so that waiting rooms have smaller, more intimate clusters of seating for veterans and their families.
The site will have 11 gardens, each with specific purposes such as providing a tranquil surrounding, a site for ceremonial events or potential activity spaces near the center’s gym and pool for rehabilitation, Failla said.
Buffer to neighborhood
Four houses will remain on South Rocheblave Street to serve as a buffer between the new complex and the neighborhood, Failla said.
One of those houses will be set up like a typical home, to assist rehabilitating veterans in learning how to navigate day-to-day tasks, such as getting into and out of bed, as they go through rehabilitation for their injuries, she said.
“The purpose of it is reteaching you how to do everyday life functions in your home with the type of stuff you have in your home,” she said.
Another of the houses will be outfitted with commercial equipment, such as restaurant booths and ATMs, that rehabilitating veterans will need to cope with. The remaining two buildings will be used for outpatient mental health care.
The project also will retain portions of the old Dixie brewery building on the site as a research center. The building’s cupola will be incorporated into the design, Failla said.
Overall, the VA center is expected to cost about $995 million to construct, with another $700 million going toward equipment, furnishings and salaries, Failla said.
The VA Medical Center will have a five-day “defend in place” plan that, in case of a disaster, will allow about 1,000 people to remain on-site for five days without outside assistance or power, Failla said.
The design of the building places all key equipment and operations above ground level, allowing for continued operations even if the area should flood, she said. Concourses on the fourth floor will provide ways to move from building to building even in case of flooding.
There will be roughly 1,100 positions at the VA hospital, but — because some people will work part time — it will employ more than that number, Failla said. Plans call for the former Pan American Life building to be used as a recruiting center as the project moves forward.
“There is no better place to be right now in health care for veterans than in New Orleans; it’s such an exciting time,” Failla said.
“This is keeping a promise to our nation’s heroes that live in southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region,” she said.
LSU hospital coming along
Work also is coming along on the University Medical Center, the successor to Charity Hospital.
Officials with the state Division of Administration, which is overseeing construction of the new hospital, would not discuss the project last week. Instead, they referred a reporter to a recent report on the status of construction.
The ambulatory care facility is expected to be completed by March, with the hospital itself slated for completion in June 2015, according to the report.
When complete, the $1.2 billion hospital will have 424 beds and will serve as the area’s Level 1 Trauma Center as well as a teaching hospital for the LSU and Tulane University medical schools. Those schools also will work with the VA center.
The medical complex was a source of controversy when first proposed because construction of the new hospitals required the demolition of many residential blocks. Many locals also fought to reopen Charity Hospital in its historic building on Tulane Avenue.
While the construction continues, the deal between the state and LCMC Health, which runs Children’s Hospital and Touro Infirmary, to have LCMC also run the successor to Charity Hospital has come under scrutiny.
Federal officials last month rejected the state’s financing plan for operating the New Orleans LSU hospital and others around the state. Unless the dispute is resolved, that rejection could create significant problems for the state budget, according to health policy experts.
State officials have said they’re working with the federal government, and LCMC President and CEO Greg Feirn said he was confident an agreement would be reached.
“We have all the confidence in the world the state will get the payment side and how this program is financed through CMS (the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) resolved,” Feirn said.
At the same time, state Treasurer John Kennedy — who has been skeptical of plans for the new LSU hospital and has argued that its business plan cannot succeed unless the state expands Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act — has said state officials should be taking a more proactive stance to resolving the issue.
“We need to get this resolved, and the only way I can see to do it would be for the governor and (Secretary of Health and Hospitals Kathy Kliebert) to get on a plane and say, ‘We’re going to Washington and going to stay there as long as it takes until we can figure out where we are.’ ”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on May 20, 2014, to correct the spelling of Liz Failla’s name.