"New Orleans deaths up 47 percent" was the USA Today above-the-fold headline in last Friday's paper. The number 47 percent is one number. We could add to that number to the 182 percent increase in the murder rate in the past year recently reported or two-fold increase in suicides. So what can we do about it? The headlines can be manipulated to mean a variety of things, depending on the lens with which the reader reads them.
Like in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, some blame the ongoing human crises in New Orleans on the local government, the governor of Louisiana, residents themselves or all of the above. Others blame the federal government, George W. Bush, FEMA or all of the above. We can agree that there is plenty of blame to go around, but none of this blame serves those in need. There are those who talk and those who do. And if any good has come from Katrina, it is the good that has been created by the vast number citizens and ad hoc nonprofit organization volunteers who have been brave, and perhaps naive enough, to put on their rubber boots and wade through the sea of dysfunction and misery.
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One such organization was formed to immediately stem the health-care crisis. It is a small clinic called the Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic . Most homes located in the neighborhood of the clinic had water over the roof. One of those homes has been rebuilt and is a clinic for the people of the Ninth Ward and surrounding area. There is such high demand for medical services that people from other Parishes with other economic and racial makeup cross previous divides to access critical services. I learned of this clinic through my work in the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. I was seeking funding for our project to build a public swimming pool and resource center when I was introduced to the staff of this wonderful clinic.
The clinic currently runs on the nurse-practitioner model. Nurse practitioners are able to write prescriptions. The clinic has one health-care professional and serves 20 to 25 patients per day. They have five examination rooms but lack the staff to fully utilize those rooms. For example, they could double their services with an added nurse practitioner ($100,000 per year salary including benefits).
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There are less than half a dozen small clinics in the New Orleans area. I am told that one of these small clinics, Operation Blessing, is closing due to lack of funding. Another small clinic is operated out of an abandoned mosque. These clinics may be the bubble gum holding the dam together in the wake of the health-care shortage, which according to the same USA Today article, New Orleans lost, "seven of 22 hospitals and half of the city's hospital beds. More than 4,486 doctors were displaced from three New Orleans Parishes."
I'm sure there is some community development plan to rebuild health care in New Orleans, like there is one to rebuild housing and schools and levees, but these plans remain on paper, plans unrealized, while the existing emergency rooms and hospitals are stressed to break point. Patients don't need to go the ER if they can access health care prior to the state of an emergency.
Most of the deaths mentioned in the USA Today article were unnecessary, and the care for these victims was likely several times that required had they had access to routine medical services such as those provided by nurse practitioners at clinics like the Lower Ninth Ward Clinic. "The lack of primary care, of mental care and of long waits in emergency rooms all have (worsened) people's normally controllable chronic diseases – diabetes, respiratory disease and hypertension – all are killers, especially when they're not dealt with," says Jullette Saussy, director of New Orleans EMS.
While nonprofit organizations are lean, flexible and responsive, they lack the long-term revenue inflow that public or for-profit ventures enjoy. The Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic, for example, relies on in-kind donations as well as small grants from a patchwork quilt of funding sources – sources that may dry up as Katrina falls out of view of the nation's rearview mirror. I often focus on politics and engage in the blame game myself in this column, but today I would encourage the readers to look for opportunities to give a hand up to those on the front lines of what is still an enormous human crisis in our own backyard.