Editorial boards take notice: Charity a State issue with National consequences

Well isn't this interesting...

As we enter a week of closed-door hearings that will decide how much money the State will receive from FEMA for hurricane-related damage done to Charity Hospital, two surprising editorials are condemning the lack of transparency and highlighting the far-reaching consequences of this flawed process.

Times-Picayune editorial, entitled "Pull the curtain on Charity Hospital hearings" decries the lack of transparency in the binding arbitration process, stating "New Orleanians and taxpayers across the nation are being kept out " of the decision-making process.

Making their case for transparency, the editorial board argues: 


There's very high public interest in this process across our region. The decision will impact how much Louisiana must borrow to build a proposed teaching hospital to replace Charity. That's a major piece for the future of our area's health care and economy. Additionally, civic and business groups in favor of the new hospital, as well as groups that want to reopen Charity instead, have a right to follow the proceedings. 


The public should be allowed into the hearings. Some people argue that would make the negotiations more difficult. But the hearings can be held while ensuring the public's presence won't be disruptive -- as it's done in courtrooms across the nation on any given day. Open hearings also would help instill public confidence in the fairness of the process.


The Times-Picayune editorial board should be commended for this stance. The Picayune's argument for the importance of process is convincing -- and surprising. As recently as November the Picayune published an editorial suggesting that efforts questioning the financing process for the Mid-City proposal were impeding progress, writing "This project has already suffered because of wrangling over governance, location and a host of other issues, and New Orleans simply can't afford to continue letting dissension stymie recovery." We hope that the Times-Picayune continues to support transparency and the right of public participation in this process as the hospital debates proceed.

Over a thousand miles away, in the nation's capitol, concerns about the closed-door hearings and their national implications were raised in a Washington Times editorial:


Transparency ought to be the order of the day in a dispute involving a third of a billion dollars, the health of tens of thousands of post-Katrina New Orleanians and the fate of a 25-square-block neighborhood of historic homes and buildings threatened by eminent domain. Instead, secrecy rules.


With national taxpayer dollars at risk, this is not merely a local issue. The remaining arbitration hearings should be open to the public, and both taxpayers and existing neighborhoods should be protected from encroachments that aren't necessary.


The State of Louisiana argues it should receive nearly half a billion dollars in federal funding for damages to Charity Hospital suffered during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of the amount that gets awarded in secret, the State will propose to spend those funds on a deeply flawed and destructive plan for Lower Mid-City.

Every taxpayer in America should be concerned about the misuse of these funds. For those of us in Louisiana, the stakes are even higher. In the absence of a viable business plan, State officials are asking for Louisiana taxpayers to issue a blank check borrow whatever money they do not receive from FEMA.

There has already been deep concerns for what this will mean for Louisiana. The Louisiana Commission on Streamlining Government recently released a 1168-page report of cost-saving recommendations. Included is a recommendation to call for an independent analysis of the hospital alternatives (p. 355-359).

More surprisingly is the Commission's inclusion of the following:


The Louisiana Streamlining Government Commission recommends to the governor and the Louisiana Legislature that the existing but currently unoccupied “Big Charity Hospital” building be rehabilitated and used as a public teaching hospital if the State of Louisiana decides to go forward with its plans to construct such a hospital in New Orleans.


Governor Jindal is threatening to cut a third of the panel's recommendations and we expect the cost-saving hospital recommendations will be among the first to get slashed.

But, as these editorials make clear, this is a debate with national implications. In an article about the Charity Hospital debate printed alongside the Washington Times editorial, Jack Davis articulates what's at stake, not just for the Governor's Mansion, but for the White House:


The Obama administration has a responsibility to keep the locals from squandering the federal taxpayers' generous investment and to deliver the kind of economic and social benefits the president says he wants to bring to America's cities.


The Obama team has the opportunity to demonstrate that its new health care system and its new urban-revitalization strategy can work together to bring better medicine to New Orleans, while protecting the downtown and saving a neighborhood that can supply badly needed, sustainable, work force housing.


As New Orleanians prepare to go to the polls and choose new leadership, we are heartened by the growing concern for this deeply flawed process -- and humbled by the implications this hospital debate will have across the country.

The new mayor and city council will have to contend with a stalled project and the urgent need to return healthcare to New Orleans. They will do so in the face of State leadership that has bungled this process at every step, and is Naginesque in its aversion to criticism.

Untangling these problems will be difficult. But, as these editorials make clear -- and with so much at stake -- a commitment to transparency and including the public in the process is a good place to start.