- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The public was given a first look Wednesday inside a sprawling medical center built in large part with federal money Louisiana got after Hurricane Katrina to replace its old flooded downtown public hospital.

Building the $1.1 billion medical complex - which in places feels more akin to a modern art museum than a hospital - has come about despite a yearslong debate over the extent of hurricane damage to the city’s old Charity Hospital, fights over razing a neighborhood where the new hospital now spans 2.2 million square feet, and the objections of residents, medical professionals and advocates.

Administrators who gave the news media tours of the facility Wednesday touted its optimistic pastel colors, calming water features, courtyards, natural-light-filled corridors and art-decorated clinics. The hospital also features high-tech operating rooms and state-of-the-art-technology throughout, officials said.

The hospital has been constructed with future hurricanes in mind too: Its ground level is raised and critical services, such as emergency and operating rooms, are located on higher floors.

Mackenzie Skene of Seattle-based NBBJ, the architecture firm that designed the complex, said the idea was to bring about an “experience of calm, natural light” to anyone who visits. “It should be a hospital that doesn’t feel like a hospital,” he added.

Officials also envision the complex being the centerpiece of a burgeoning biomedical district that will attract investment to an area of the city that has suffered from blight and lack of investment.

The complex, which will function as both a teaching hospital and health care center, is called the University Medical Center New Orleans and it is expected to open to patients Aug. 1.

“We will transform the health care landscape in New Orleans,” said Cindy Nuesslein, the president and CEO of the new hospital. “This is a medical mecca now.”

But there are persistent doubts.

“Now the big question is who will actually go there,” said James Moises, an emergency room surgeon who opposed the closing of Charity. He worked at Charity when Katrina struck in August 2005 and argued that it was fit to be reopened shortly after the hurricane.

He said the concern is that the state has spent so much money on the construction of the complex, with no guarantee it will be able to attract the number of patients needed to keep it solvent.

The new center is being run by LCMC Health, a private not-for-profit health care system that includes Children’s Hospital, Touro and New Orleans East Hospital.

Greg C. Feirn, the CEO of LCMC Health, said the new facility is expected to cost $465 million a year to operate. The hospital will accept Medicaid and under-insured patients, who now make up about 70 percent of the patients seen at an interim hospital that has served the poor and as a trauma center since Charity was closed.

Feirn said the new hospital expects to see the daily patient load increase from about 220 patients today to about 350 a day in five years. The hospital will employ about 2,000 nurses, doctors and other staff.

Old Charity remains closed and unused. It is a 20-story, 1-million-square-foot Art Deco hulk built in the 1930s as one of the biggest hospitals ever constructed. The new hospital includes about 1.6 million square feet of building space.

The old Charity hospital - commonly referred to as “Big Charity” - was run by Louisiana State University as a teaching hospital and served the health care needs of a large portion of the city’s poor population. Charity was where people went to get a variety of ailments treated at little to no cost.

Charity also had mental health services and was a Level 1 trauma center, the one place in the region where the most critical cases - such as gunshot and car accident victims - were taken.

But Katrina’s floodwaters swamped the basement and lower parts of Charity, prompting state officials to close it and say it was beyond repair.

The new complex includes many nods to old Charity. Art Deco art work featured at Charity is replicated in the new building’s entry lobby and a statue of the Rev. Avery C. Alexander welcomes visitors, as does the civil rights leader’s name on the front of the new hospital. Old Charity also carried the name of the civic leader, a New Orleans legislator, who was a strong supporter of the hospital.

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