Behind the Veil: UMC backers move into damage control mode

 In a email to his fellow members, a state legislator apparently had this to say yesterday as he and supporters of the proposed UMC hospital in Lower Mid-City shifted into damage control mode after the House Ways and Means Committee stripped $900 million in borrowing authority for the UMC from a budget bill:

"The biggest downside of the money being stripped is the image that it portrays to other regions of the State and nationally.  It is never good to have a regional delegation member being perceived as being against the UMC."

No, no it is not good.  While several people out there speculate that yesterday's move is merely a slap at the governor, which will soon be reversed, it's hard to deny that the move to strip the authority reinforces the chief problem with the UMC project: the continuing sense of serious uncertainty about whether it will ever be built.

There's still no business plan - this website sent out a letter to legislators in 2009 saying there was no business plan, so it's a chronic, ongoing problem with this whole venture - and the full funding necessary for construction of the hospital is not onhand.

Nevertheless, one legislator who supports the bill was doggedly trying to right the listing ship yesterday:

"As you all know, the news media has sezied [sic] upon this issue to suggest that there will be additional delays to the UMC project.  I would hope that in the future everyone will focus not only on supporting this important project, but would also consider the that our actions sometimes have unanticipated and unintended consequences, and we should always strive to think about the downside before taking action.

I thought it was important to share with you these details of this important project so that you can respond to constituent and media inquiries."

It's no wonder the media jumped on this matter.  Jerry Jones with the Office of Facilities and Planning Control hemmed and hawed, stating that the committee's move yesterday would cause serious delay for the project...and then reversing himself later in the day, telling the media that delays would not result - a sign of the Governor's office, no doubt, joining in the damage control fiesta.

Here's the deal.  The serious ongoing uncertainty that has plagued this project continues to beg the question: why does the state repeatedly refuse to go back into the existing Rev. Avery C. Alexander Charity Hospital?  MInus about $103 million in expenditures, the state has a little over $630 million on hand at this point - that we know of, excluding "potential" FEMA funds that the state continues to factor into its total - and that's enough to retrofit Charity Hospital.

Instead, the state has bulldozed forward like a drunken fool, spending over $55 million thus far to acquire and destroy property, hire professional legal services, and relocate masses of people and businesses.  Over a hundred properties are still in legal dispute, so the costs of going with the Mid-City site will increase.  The state did all that despite the fact that it has a perfectly usable building...that it owns!  The building would also meet the programmatic needs of the proposed UMC.  And building in the existing building would - gasp - still create thousands of jobs (medical and construction)!

Jerry Jones, even yesterday, continued the misleading refrain that any attempt to build in the old Charity building equates to creating something less than a fully modern, state-of-the-art academic medical center.  That's not true.  We believe that's a false choice driven by an obsession with the supposed "stigma" of the word "Charity" itself.  Rebuilding in Charity does not consign the UMC to be an indigent care facility alone.

That's the irony - supporters of the UMC will always say opponents lack vision.  But it's the supporters of the terribly designed replacement facility that can't seem to see a simple but powerful plan that's right for New Orleans.

As Dr. John once said: "If we can get Charity Hospital open faster and cheaper, how come we not doin' it?"