For those who read political motives into everything our politicians do, it is easy to attribute Sen. David Vitter’s blistering, all-out attack on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s largest public works project and, he hopes, economic development engine, the $1.2 billion University Medical Center, which ceremonially got underway this week on 34 cleared acres on the edge of downtown New Orleans.
Could it be payback for the major insult from Jindal of not endorsing Vitter for re-election last year? Not that the senator, who won by 19 points, needed the governor’s stamp of approval, but the withholding of it was taken as an egregious affront that demanded a proportionate response, as an example, if nothing else, of what awaits those who cross David Vitter.
Vitter’s opposition to the size and scope of the teaching hospital goes back over four years to when LSU proposed it as the replacement for Big Charity, shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. His position aligned him with executives and doctors at Tulane and Ochsner’s, who opposed LSU’s plan to compete with them for private-pay and Medicare patients. Back then, Vitter even wrote to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, asking him not to approve use of hurricane recovery funds on the project until former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration adopted healthcare policies in line with former President George Bush’s administration.
While remaining a critic of the facility, Vitter was more subdued when Jindal in 2008 endorsed the current model for a 424-bed medical complex next to a new Veteran’s Administration hospital. The governor accepted LSU’s argument that a smaller, cheaper facility would forever be a charity hospital and a greater financial drain on the state than would a more ambitious complex, with the specialty support to encourage doctors to admit their patients.
Jindal saw more than a teaching hospital, just as former Gov. John McKeithen saw more than a football stadium in the Superdome, but also the hotels and office buildings on Poydras Street that breathed new economic life into what was a rundown part of the city.
It was a vision he looked forward to sharing this week when ground was broken on the grand project that would shape his image as the job-creating economic developer, a fine storyline to lead into his re-election campaign.
But before the dirt was turned on Jindal ‘s legacy, Vitter dumped all over it.The senator renewed his offensive this month, writing to a new HUD secretary to ask that he deny the state’s application for federal loan insurance on $400 million of bonds to complete the financing and allow construction to begin. In language he normally reserves for Democratic schemes, Vitter lambasted the state’s plans as “over-sized,” “unrealistic” and “unsustainable.” While he agreed with the need for a modern teaching hospital, he says something less expansive should be built either in the shell of the old Charity Hospital or on a smaller footprint on the new site.
What must really gall Jindal is to realize Vitter is right. The basic tenets of the senator’s criticism are contained in a study commissioned by the new University Medical Center board, the quasi-state entity that will build and run the complex. The study by Kaufman, Hall & Associates of Illinois estimates only a third of private-pay and Medicare admissions from LSU doctors than was projected in an earlier LSU-commissioned study. The new study notes that New Orleans already has more hospital beds per capita than the national average and concludes the market warrants a hospital with about 20% fewer beds than LSU has planned.
Jindal may have wished to hurry up and hold the groundbreaking before the UMC board officially receives and releases the study next month, when all those pesky questions would arise. Too late. The Times-Picayune got a hold of the report and broke the story on the day of the ceremony. The analysis validates much of Vitter’s recent criticism, which makes one wonder when he read it.
After the UMC board reviews the report, when Jindal eventually holds a press conference to talk about down-sizing and saving money, Vitter will acknowledge the governor’s new-found fiscal responsibility and graciously offer his support. Served up cold.