Health IT for veterans gets notice in New Orleans

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, there is still debate about where to rebuild a healthcare system that will provide the best treatment and most efficient electronic record-keeping for veterans in the southeastern Louisiana region.

"Veterans in south Louisiana have waited too long for a decision to be made on the future of healthcare delivery in this area," House Veterans' Affairs Health Subcommittee Chairman Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said in written testimony for a Monday field hearing in New Orleans.

The session was held to address the future of VA health care in the region by convening local government leaders and university officials, veterans and representatives from regional healthcare systems.

Healthcare delivery "remains in flux as leaders struggle to come to some agreement on both the best location and the best partnerships" to forge for providing care to veterans and other citizens, said full House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif.

Before Katrina, the New Orleans VA medical center had a partnership with New Orleans' Louisiana State University, the Tulane University Schools of Medicine and many allied health profession programs. Congress has appropriated $625 million, through two emergency supplemental appropriations, to move ahead on building a new facility.

Frederick Cerise, secretary of the Louisiana Health and Hospitals Department, urged the committee to support a model that would leverage the success of VA's esteemed health information technology system by combining three New Orleans inpatient facilities that existed before Katrina into a single LSU-VA inpatient facility, with a dispersed network of clinics.

The goal of Louisiana's healthcare redesign is to provide care through partnerships that take advantage of health IT and improve health outcomes. "This is akin to the VA vision," Cerise said.

He noted that in the aftermath of Katrina, VA facilities nationwide were able to access patient information for evacuees because of the department's health IT system.

"Investments in HIT and the recently established Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum will aid in creating system-ness and ensuring that improvements in quality occur," Cerise testified.

He cited support for keeping the VA hospital downtown from the Regional Planning Commission for Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes; the Downtown Development District of New Orleans; and the state legislature.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the city also supports rebuilding the VA hospital downtown.

But Patrick Quinlan, CEO of Ochsner Health Systems, whose Jefferson Parish-based medical center remained open during and after Katrina, recommended that the VA locate the new medical facility outside downtown New Orleans, near Ochsner's center.

In commissioning an independent study of 600 veterans in 18 south Louisiana parishes, "overwhelmingly, 76 percent of veterans indicated they prefer a suburban Jefferson Parish location to one in downtown New Orleans," he stated.

Ochsner's proposal encourages the VA to occupy a 28-acre site owned by Ochsner that has easy access to major highways. "It is above sea level and not located in a flood plain," Quinlan testified. And, "electronic connectivity is possible with Ochsner's complete ambulatory electronic medical record system."

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