Vacant hospitals face uncertain future

The iconic symbol of Louisiana’s commitment to health care for the poorest of its residents sits abandoned in downtown New Orleans. Not much has changed at Big Charity since Hurricane Katrina shut its doors in 2005.

In north Baton Rouge, another LSU hospital — this one locked up as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to privatize the state’s charity hospital system — sits vacant, with weeds growing in the cracks of the concrete and broken glass scattered over the Earl K. Long Medical Center campus.

Soon, the LSU hospital in Pineville, the Huey P. Long Medical Center, will become another deserted property as private hospitals take over care of the poor and uninsured in central Louisiana.

Though some uses are planned for the New Orleans and Baton Rouge sites, the state has no long-term plans for the properties.

Many floors of Charity Hospital in New Orleans are somewhat of a time capsule of the day the facility was evacuated in August 2005 because of Katrina flooding: beds still unmade and IV poles still standing. Nothing’s worth keeping, said Jerry Jones, the LSU system’s facilities project administrator.

The state is hoping to start by mid-July the process of hiring a firm to clean out the place, Jones said.

In Baton Rouge, Twentieth Century Fox is filming scenes for its “Fantastic Four” sequel at the Earl K. Long campus on Airline Highway. “Fantastic Four” is the movie version of the Marvel Comics serials about a team of scientists with superpowers.

Once the filming is finished, the state plans to start the process in August or September of hiring a firm to tear down the main building.

But beyond those immediate plans, the state has only question marks.

Big Charity’s future

The Veterans Affairs hospital across the street from Big Charity will close when its new hospital opens in a downtown medical complex. The complex between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue also includes the state’s 424-bed University Medical Center and is scheduled to open in mid-2015.

The city of New Orleans will own the VA property as part of a land exchange involving new hospital construction.

“There’s no plan for any of those (vacant) buildings right now,” state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said. “It’s a lot of property in the heart of the city.”

The state is spending $3 million a year to secure and maintain the vacant property.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pulled the plug on the most promising option for Big Charity — an ambitious and costly plan to relocate City Hall, some courts and other local agencies in it. At an estimated $400 million, the project was too expensive, and the state did not commit its $100 million share.

“It’s a state building that is a state responsibility,” Landrieu said. “I hope the state finds something really useful to do with it that is part and parcel of what the future economic development is for the city.”

He complained that the Jindal administration diverted $600 million in federal funds from the building to new state hospital construction, leaving nine blocks around Charity behind.

What that could mean is the state is creating 1 million square feet of “blighted property in the middle of our city,” said House Speaker Pro-tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. It’s “really important” to redevelop the historic building, he added.

The Jindal administration is required under an agreement involving FEMA to market the property to public and private entities for three years for possible reuse.

A marketing strategy has not yet been determined, Meghan Parrish, communications director of Jindal’s Division of Administration, said last week. Neither is it clear when the three-year period commenced. Administration officials refused to answer that question. Indications are the division’s Facilities Planning and Control Office is working on a request for proposals from developers interested in “an adaptive use.”

Historic Foundation of Louisiana board member Sandra Stokes said the state did not market the building as it waited on the New Orleans civic complex project to come to fruition. The building is “absolutely viable” and structurally sound, she said.

“There will be a lot of people coming forward now that the mayor’s plan is dead,” Stokes said. “A lot of people will show up once the state starts to market it as it is obligated to do. I think things will start opening up.”

Plans for the Earl

The demolition of the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center is the first step in a process that will ultimately turn the Airline Highway property over to the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority for development.

As the hospital closure loomed, state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, acquired state construction dollars and started the wheels turning for the property’s future use. About $2 million has been appropriated for the demolition.

Only the main hospital building is coming down, LSU’s Jones said. Another 13 structures of varying sizes are on the property.

The property won’t be transferred to the Housing Authority until after the demolition. “They won’t even move forward with the appraisal until the demolition is done,” Jones said.

A group of local elected officials, community leaders and nonprofit organizations are considering long-term prospects for the 13-acre site, Broome said. Discussions have evolved around a mixed-use development.

The property has been vacant since April 15, 2013, when Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in south Baton Rouge took over the contract to provide medical care and education programs that had been done at the Earl. Security and maintenance costs on the vacated property are nearly $1 million annually.

The state’s contract with the Lake was the first in a series of contracts that allow private companies to administer the public hospitals once run by LSU. Nine of the state’s 10 public hospitals have been privatized.

Three of the deals involved closure of LSU hospitals in Baton Rouge, Pineville and Lake Charles. The other facilities are being managed and operated by private companies.

Huey P. questions

LSU’s Huey P. Long Medical Center in Pineville closes June 30. Some activity will remain on the property, including a medical clinic and operation of a morgue in a hospital out-building. There also has been discussion of locating a women’s crisis center in another of the buildings on the property. But no plans are in place for the 1930s-era primary hospital building.

“We are hoping that the opinion leaders in central Louisiana will come together and determine the best use of the main hospital on the campus property,” said John Dailey, vice chancellor for administration at the LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport. “I’m sure the elected officials and others will find things that honor the mission of what the Huey P. was all about, recognizing it cannot support hospital services anymore.”

State Reps. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, and Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, said they have heard of no plans.

Harris said it was early because the hospital has not yet closed. Dixon said “some feelers” for development have been made on the Pineville side of the Red River.

“It is going to be vitally important that something positive happens with that big structure,” Dixon said. “That’s a huge building to just stand there idly and not be kept up. You know what happens in situations like that.”

He said those interested in locating in Pineville will not want to look at the abandoned property.

“It’s going to be a source of concern,” Dixon said.

W.O. Moss conversion

LSU’s W.O. Moss Medical Center in Lake Charles is no longer in use as a hospital, but a private partner — Lake Charles Memorial Hospital — is using the facility for outpatient clinics, pharmacy and diagnostic screening and testing such as CAT scans and MRIs. The hospital’s emergency room has been converted into an extended-hours urgent care center.

Lake Charles Memorial is scheduled to build a $3 million to $4 million medical office building on the property in which primary care physicians will see patients in doctor’s office settings. The specialty clinics will stay in the hospital building.

“It’s old — 60 years old — so it’s not the prettiest building. It has issues related to it being a hospital,” said Larry Graham, chief executive officer at Lake Charles Memorial. But Graham said it is perfectly usable as a medical office building.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said discussions have been ongoing about using part of the hospital for medical training programs offered by McNeese State University in Lake Charles and SOWELA Technical College in Lake Charles. Nothing is firm yet, he said.

Graham said he also is considering using it for employee training programs for the four facilities in the Lake Charles Memorial system.

“It’s in pretty good shape. It’s been pretty well maintained,” Kleckley said. “Everything going on out there has been very, very positive.”

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.