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Monday, August 17, 2015

Guest column: New Orleans can't wait for the new VA hospital

Posted By on Mon, Aug 17, 2015 at 4:43 PM

click to enlarge A rendering of the new Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System medical center in New Orleans. Originally scheduled to open in December 2014, the date has been pushed back two years. - COURTESY U.S. OFFICE OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
  • COURTESY U.S. OFFICE OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
  • A rendering of the new Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System medical center in New Orleans. Originally scheduled to open in December 2014, the date has been pushed back two years.

A few months ago, The Associated Press took a hard look at New Orleans’ Veterans Affairs facility. What the news organization discovered was sobering for a city that won a war by developing the Higgins boat. Need an appointment for non-emergency care? You could be waiting a month. Need a hip replacement? You might be driving to Houston.

It’s been 10 years since the floodwaters triggered by Hurricane Katrina gushed into New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The Crescent City’s veterans currently receive their health care at locations scattered across town.

A hospital capable of serving 70,000 veterans is under construction next door to the newly opened University Medical Center. The new VA medical center was supposed to open in December 2014. The new opening date is December 2016. I can tell you this: It can’t open fast enough.

The average primary care wait time for patients in the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System is 4.21 days. That’s a vast improvement over the average primary care wait time of 7.57 days in December 2014, but it still doesn’t meet the national goal of 4.16 days.

The new veterans’ hospital will offer acute psychiatric beds, palliative care, a therapeutic pool and eight operating rooms within the intervention center. It will be able to sustain patients and staff for five days during a natural disaster such as a hurricane. It will have a research laboratory.

Mr. Fernando O. Rivera, CEO and director of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, who has been with the Department of Veteran Affairs for three decades, says that improvements are being made to veterans’ health care access during the hospital construction delays. That’s good news, but we still need this hospital to open as soon as possible.

New Orleans needs the footprint of a first-class veterans’ hospital. This is the city that changed the outcome of World War II by creating an amphibious boat. This is the city that is home to the National WWII Museum. Nearly 20,000 veterans called New Orleans home at last count – and that’s just New Orleans. I’m not including the veterans who live in Covington, Slidell, Houma and Chalmette.
It was the right decision to build a new veterans’ hospital after Hurricane Katrina. Our veterans deserve world-class treatment. They deserve a world-class facility.

And I understand that delays happen. Problems arose with the land transfer. Underground hazardous materials were found.

In its construction phase, the hospital is being called Project Legacy. The idea is that this hospital will be a fitting legacy for what our veterans endured during their service to this great country. I know Project Legacy will live up to its name.

We need to hold firm to the December 2016 opening date. We need to focus on quickly disposing of any further delays. Our veterans shouldn’t have to drive to Houston or Shreveport for surgery. That’s a burden on them and on their families. Besides, the last place you want to be when you’re undergoing surgery is far from home.

Meanwhile, Director Rivera has asked me to tell veterans how they can get health care close to home. I’m more than happy to do so.

A program called Veterans Choice allows veterans to receive health care outside a veterans’ facility if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility. To learn more, go to www.va.gov/opa/choiceact/.

I’m glad this program is in place, but I know what my first choice is. I want the new veterans’ hospital to open so they can receive treatment at a facility tailored to serve them.

John Kennedy is the Louisiana state treasurer. 

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