12/04/2009 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Funding New Orleans Health Centers Must be a National Priority

It has been more than four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans region. As we all know, the health care infrastructure was particularly hard hit when Katrina flooded the city and surrounding parishes.

I chaired a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing this week to examine what progress has been made to repair and improve the region's health care infrastructure and highlight the challenges that still remain.

Many important hospitals and outpatient clinics were severely damaged or destroyed. As a result, many of the region's residents have struggled to obtain health care. The city's low-income population often relied on emergency rooms and outpatient clinics as their source of primary care. Charity Hospital, which before Katrina was the major public hospital for the working poor and uninsured, was essentially destroyed and remains shuttered today.

Those facilities that remained open after Katrina, particularly those willing to help the uninsured and poor, had limited capacity. While a few organizations were eventually able to open some clinics, major health care delivery gaps remained for months, and even years, after the storm.

To help address the lack of health care services after the storm, Congress allocated $100 million to the Department of Health and Human Services in July 2007, to establish the "Primary Care Access and Stabilization Grant." The program provided Louisiana health services with funding to restore and expand critical primary care services to the region, without regard for a patient's ability to pay. The federal, state and local officials who testified before the Committee stressed that the grant program stepped in to fill the huge void left by the destruction of Charity hospital.

The good news is that currently almost 90 clinics are utilizing funds from the grant and are serving as the backbone of health care services in New Orleans. The clinics help reduce costly reliance on emergency room care and provide critical services to patients who are uninsured, underinsured or covered by Medicaid. Collectively, the clinics are providing care for more than 160,000 individuals in the region. As of June 22, 2009, more than $80 million of the $100 million grant had been distributed - with the funding set to expire on September 30, 2010.

The New Orleans region faces an uncertain future with no clear plans to sustain these clinics financially, and breaking ground on a replacement for Charity Hospital seems like a distant reality at this point.

The witness testimony was abundantly clear that we need act immediately to solve the critical problems facing the health care infrastructure in New Orleans. Our brothers and sisters in the region suffered greatly four years ago. I believe that we must recommit to ensuring that these health care clinics are fully funded, while at the same time, finding the resources needed to build a new public hospital.