Marking a major milestone in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, city and state officials including Gov. Bobby Jindal celebrated the opening of the new, $1.1 billion University Medical Center in Mid-City on Wednesday, promising a world-class facility that will treat rich and poor alike.
The event saw Jindal, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, and local Democratic officials praising one another for following through with the construction of the new hospital.
But just minutes later, Jindal fired off a letter to President Barack Obama blasting him for “politicizing” the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Katrina with a visit that some media reports have described as part of a larger presidential tour dedicated to highlighting the threat of climate change.
The event marked the first of Jindal’s appearances in New Orleans during the crush of Katrina commemorations this week, with more planned in the coming days.
Katrina “brought us to our knees but didn’t weaken our resolve,” he said.
UMC replaces the old Charity Hospital, which was closed after Katrina. It opened at the beginning of the month, when patients were transferred to the new facility from the Interim LSU Hospital that had served as the state-backed hospital for the city over much of the past decade.
Officials described the new hospital as a key to turning New Orleans into a health care destination, a crucial safety net for low-income residents and a sign of the region’s recovery after the storm and flooding.
Obama will be traveling to New Orleans on Thursday to take part in the commemorations. The visit has been reported to be part of an 11-day tour highlighting how climate change and rising sea levels can threaten coastal communities.
“While you and others may be of the opinion that we can legislate away hurricanes with higher taxes, business regulations and EPA power grabs, that is not a view shared by many Louisianians,” Jindal wrote in his open letter. “I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”
While Obama’s visit is expected to include some discussion of how climate change could impact New Orleans, which faces danger from more intense hurricanes and shrinking coastal wetlands that would typically serve as a buffer against storm surge, the White House has couched the president’s message largely in terms of the region’s recovery from Katrina.
Jindal’s letter pointed to the state’s 50-year, $50 billion plan for restoring coastal wetlands, a plan put together by a state agency that itself recognizes climate change as a threat to the region.
“A lecture on climate change would do nothing to improve upon what we are already doing,” Jindal wrote. “Quite the opposite; it would distract from the losses we have suffered, diminish the restoration efforts we have made, and overshadow the miracle that has been the Louisiana comeback.”
Despite the harsh tone of his letter, Jindal said he still plans to meet Obama on the tarmac when Air Force One arrives at Louis Armstrong International Airport. The president will travel to the Andrew P. Sanchez Center in the Lower 9th Ward late in the afternoon to speak about the devastation of Katrina and the region’s recovery.
Jindal will return to the city on Saturday to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the victims of Katrina.
While full of fiery rhetoric in his letter, Jindal took a far more bipartisan tone as he stood on stage with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city’s state legislative delegation — all Democrats — to celebrate the opening of the new hospital.
Despite frequent clashes between the mayor and Jindal’s administration, the governor told Landrieu, “Both you and I have left these communities better than we found them,” and he even worked in kind words for his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Blanco’s administration put forward the plan to build the new medical complex rather than rehabilitate Charity Hospital after Katrina.
Throughout the presentations — a dozen elected officials spoke in all—- speakers stressed their commitment to keeping Charity’s role as a safety-net hospital where those who would not otherwise be able to afford care could receive treatment.
Concern that this mission would be abandoned — due either to budget issues, the move to the new facility or the privatization of the hospital — have loomed large in the debates surrounding it over the past decade.
“Whether you are rich or poor, you’re going to get the very best care at UMC,” state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who represents the district that includes the hospital and who chairs the state Democratic Party, called for the state to accept an expansion of Medicaid, something the Jindal administration has refused, and pointedly noted that the hospital was paid for with hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars — an apparent swipe at Jindal’s refusal to accept some “stimulus” money from the Obama administration and his general anti-tax rhetoric.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.