New Orleans — On the same day that massive cuts in state health care funding were announced in Baton Rouge, contractors presented a rosy outlook on construction progress at the massively expensive University Medical Center in New Orleans.
The board of directors for the medical center’s management corporation met Thursday to get a progress report on construction of the 424-bed hospital and associated treatment facilities from project director Tom Rish. Rish told the board that despite delays related to Hurricane Isaac, the project remained on schedule, and serious results should soon become visible. He projected that the exterior of the 747,000 square-foot Diagnostic and Treatment Center at the site could be up by December.
“We’re not slowing down,” Rish said. “We’ll continue to move.”
However, the meeting was just hours after LSU Health Care Services Division announced $49 million in cuts to funding for the Interim LSU Public Hospital in New Orleans. Those cuts are part of more than $150 million in cuts to the LSU health system as a whole and are projected to result in about 1,500 layoffs. About 400 of those jobs will be cut at the current New Orleans facility. Board members and project managers for the University Medical Center avoided a discussion of how those cuts could impact the project, noting that roughly $694 million in contracts are already in place and funded for the facility.
That includes $523 million for site work, the diagnostic center and three six-story in-patient towers at the site. Another $132 million is for an ambulatory care center and parking garages, $35 million for a utility building and $3 million each for a connector across Tulane Avenue and pre-construction costs.
But Rish’s contention was challenged by Sandra Stokes, a board member with the Foundation for a Historical Louisiana, which opposed the UMC project in favor of a renovation of the former Charity Hospital building in downtown New Orleans. Stokes initially reiterated previous complaints about the expropriation of property, the legality of the management board’s existence and also questioned plans to link care for residents to public/private partnerships. She then questioned how recent state cuts might gut the UMC project before it even gets started. Stokes called on Rish and the board to explain the business plan for the hospital and how it will survive with the changing fiscal landscape.
“They just cut the hospitals this morning, and more cuts are coming,” Stokes said. “This project has been questionable all along.”
But none of the gathered officials addressed Stokes’ questions. Instead, management board chairman Robert Yarborough praised Rish and contractor Skanska-Mapp for what he deemed a superbly managed project that has had exemplary worker safety. Skanska’s project manager James Clemmensen said no injuries resulting in lost work time have occurred during the first year of construction. The project has about 1,050 workers on site, but at its peak levels, those numbers could triple.
Clemmensen credited new technology used by Skanska to “virtually build” the hospital before physical construction began. He also said the company is prefabricating many components on-site before placing them into position, which has reduced dangerous working conditions and overall mistakes.
Skanska has created 516 bid packages for subcontractors involved in the project in an effort to increase minority participation and offer opportunities for as many local contractors as possible to be employed, Clemmensen said. About 77 percent of all contractors employed on site have been from Louisiana, he said.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Clemmensen said. “Essentially what we’re doing is virtually building the building before we ever put a stick in the ground. ... It’s just like an assembly line.”