WASHINGTON -- Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said Thursday that Charity Hospital could and should have been reopened after Hurricane Katrina, and that Louisiana needs to pony up the money for a new hospital and stop dunning FEMA for money that's not going to come.
"The state of Louisiana needs to pay for its own damn medical center," said Honore, who was the commander of Joint Task Force-Katrina in the wake of the 2005 hurricane.
Honore made his remarks in his trademark blunt but genial style after leaving a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he testified that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be removed from the Department of Homeland Security and restored to its status as an independent agency, with a seat at Cabinet meetings.
In remarks before the committee, and in comments afterward, Honore said the recovery in New Orleans has been woefully uneven to the detriment of the working poor. He said private businesses and industry have come back while many government facilities remain closed or in need of repair.
"The commercial world gets it done," he said. But he said that nearly four years after Katrina, the state still is waiting for FEMA to give it the down payment for a new hospital, money that he said the Stafford Act does not permit FEMA to provide.
Honore said he doesn't doubt that New Orleans needs a more modern medical facility, or that the "big brains" at LSU had come up with a great vision of what that facility should be, but that paying for that is not a federal responsibility, and that it is past time for Louisiana officials to stop pointing their fingers at FEMA as a way of avoiding their own responsibilities.
For too long, he said, Louisiana officialdom has "used FEMA as a get-out-of-jail-free card."
Honore wrote last year that Katrina had been "used as an opportunity to close the doors of Charity Hospital," hurting the city's poor residents.
Before the hearing, Honore met for about an hour with Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, the freshman Republican from New Orleans, who believes that Charity was more than half destroyed by Katrina and therefore eligible under the Stafford Act for the full $492 million replacement cost the state is seeking. But that was not the judgment of the FEMA office in New Orleans, which denied the state's claim. This week, the FEMA regional office in Texas rejected the state's appeal of that denial.
Instead, FEMA is offering Louisiana $150 million.
Cao said he told Honore that "Charity Hospital had problems with recertification even before Katrina" and that it would have been irresponsible to pump millions of dollars into a hospital that might not be eligible for certification in the first place.
In August 2007, LSU Hospitals issued a statement saying that, "Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the Charity Hospital building failed accreditation reviews because it could not meet the demands of modern health care."
But, according to a recent report by lawyers for the Louisiana Justice Institute, which is among the parties that oppose the Louisiana State University plan for a new hospital and support reopening Charity, Charity was awarded accreditation on Jan. 10, 2003, for a period ending Dec. 14, 2005.
During the hearing, Cao said that in Charity's absence, other health care institutions in his district were pushed to the brink of bankruptcy as they took up the slack in providing indigent care, "while FEMA is talking about the value of doorknobs and toilets."
Jerome Hauer, an emergency management expert who also testified before the committee, said it was "unconscionable" that FEMA had not seen to the replacement of Charity, but that, "because they are giving out so much money" in the aftermath of major disasters, FEMA is very "rule-centric."
Larry Gispert, director of Hillsborough County Emergency Management in Florida, said that whenever FEMA tries to get creative and bend the rules, the General Accountability Office or inspector general "bangs them hard for breaking the rules," sometimes demanding that parties that received money based on lax FEMA rulings return the money.
When Cao pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about Charity's fate at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday, Napolitano cautioned that "we want to move the Katrina recovery forward as expeditiously as possible, but we have a responsibility; these are taxpayer dollars and we don't have unending pockets.
"There are some legitimate differences of opinion," she said. "Ultimately I believe they will end up in arbitration," referring to an arbitration process now being set up by her department as a result of a congressional provision authored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Original Article: "Gen. Honore says Louisiana should drop appeal and pay for new hospital itself"
by Jonathan Tilove | The Times-Picayune
May 15th 2009