Dr. Dean Robinson spread his arms wide with excitement as he welcomed a few dozen veterans, their spouses and children into a soon-to-be-furnished family therapy room in the area’s first veterans hospital since before Hurricane Katrina.
Aside from a flat screen television, it was empty, and he admitted that it didn’t look like much yet. But as the chief of mental health services at the new Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System facility, Robinson didn’t want the significance of what will happen there to be lost among the crowd.
“Every time I come in here I get a thrill of delight,” Robinson said. “Because about 20 percent of veterans return to us with emotional problems, such as anxiety disorders or sometimes depression. So when they’re treated it’s very important to include their families as much as possible.”
To that end, the hospital’s highly anticipated opening will be synonymous with an outpouring of much-needed psychiatric, psychological and counseling services for veterans and their families in New Orleans, Robinson said – services that many say have been lacking in the city for more than a decade.
The 400,000 square-foot outpatient building, slated to open by mid-December, will also feature a 31-room dental clinic, a physical rehabilitation space with a pool, a gymnasium and ambulatory and primary care facilities. With all its bells and whistles, including a whole women’s wing with access to OBGYN services, that part of the hospital is expected to serve half a million patients every year.
And it’s just one of many buildings comprising the $1 billion, 31-acre VA hospital nestled in Mid-City between Tulane Avenue and Canal, South Galvez and South Rocheblave streets, slated to fully open by the end of next year.
The staff will celebrate an official ribbon cutting on Nov. 18, but the 1.6 million square foot hospital will continue open in phases throughout 2017, according to its director, Fernando Rivera.
Rivera laid out his timeline at a 4th of July flag-raising ceremony held Monday, to honor local veterans and hospital staff.
First the eye and mental health clinics will open, followed by some primary care services. That facility will join a workforce development center already established in 2014, when the hospital’s administrative building opened on Canal Street.
Next the hospital will offer some ambulatory and surgical procedures, followed by minor acuity-level treatment. By next fall, Rivera anticipates running a full-blown hospital, expected to serve more than 70,000 enrolled veterans from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle.
Referencing previous delays, Rivera was quick to clarify that the opening date is fluid, and subject to change. The hospital’s opening date was already postponed by a year, and has come in $400,000 over an initial budget.
“I’ve been clear of not committing to a target date by putting the patients at risk. I’d rather get fired,” Rivera said. “That’s the way the veterans want me to think, the way the staff wants me to think and that’s the way I want to think.”
The wait will be worthwhile, other doctors opined during a nearly two-hour tour held after the patriotic ceremony. As red, white and blue-clad veterans young and old joined reporters and a pack of boy scouts, the team proudly pointed to state-of-the-art equipment, meticulous staffing plans and perks like sweeping views overlooking a garden and courtyard.
In the works is an inpatient component complete with 120 surgery beds, 20 acute psychiatric beds and 60 community living center beds. Nursing centers are grouped every few feet in the hallway, with plans for no more than four patients to a single nurse.
In the diagnostic and treatment building, staff will run the emergency department and a 48-hour observation unit, as well as operating rooms, procedure rooms and tools like scanners and MRIs.
A hub-like design of each hospital section is meant to function much like a terminal at an airport. Each of the hospital’s five different entrance points have plenty of bathrooms, a canteen and coffee bar and a station with a greeting staff member.
The hospital also offers an outpatient waiting lounge, wheelchair storage, two 1,000-car garages and free valet parking.
All this is meant to reduce the frustrations brought on by traveling long distances for what’s expected to be a destination hospital, explained Dr. Michael Landry, the hospital’s chief of medicine service.
“This hospital was built with a lot of veterans’ input,” Landry said. “We want to make this environment great for healing.”
When completed, the facility will significantly increase the level of care the VA system is able to provide in southeast Louisiana, building on programs already offered in eight community-based clinics throughout the area.
But it isn’t just designed for treatment. As part of an overall mission, staff in this facility will also offer educational training and new medical research.
To that end, the VA system will provide approximately 170 full-time slots to medical students from Tulane University and Louisiana State University, with opportunities to train more than 400 medical, surgical and psychiatric residents.
They will have access to smart classrooms, cameras in operating rooms and robotic surgery.
The space is also designed to support multiple research missions, expected to garner over $2.5 million in funding. A 130,000 square-foot center will host 15 lab groups and feature access to wet labs, an electron microscope and a mass spectrometer.
Doctors are expected to work closely with those from the University Medical Center staff, located directly across the street.
And finally, the facility will do something that’s been on the community’s mind since federal floods devastated local hospitals in 2005: become a replacement medical center in New Orleans in the event of a natural disaster or other federal emergency.
The hospital will have 100 percent backup power, a fully securable perimeter, a boat dock and the ability to double inpatient occupancy on short notice, staff said.
The significance of the new facility, and what it potentially means for the city, was not lost Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, who oversees the Louisiana National Guard and was in the area helping citizens 11 years ago, during Katrina.
Amid Monday’s flag-raising ceremony, a program complete with the Star Spangled Banner and a 21-gun salute, Curtis thanked the VA community that pushed to make the hospital a reality.
“What you have done for our veterans here in southeast Louisiana and really across Louisiana is nothing short of remarkable to me,” Curtis said. “We saw ourselves through a catastrophic event, and we have continued to recover and rebuild and rebuild, and refused to say no.”