State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, appearing before the New Orleans City Council March 21, said the state has finalized a deal to lease the shuttered New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH) to Children's Hospital, allowing NOAH to reopen and provide inpatient and outpatient mental health services to children and adolescents. Abramson, who led a presentation with Reps. Jeff Arnold and Jared Brossett, said, "While I'd like to say we can open the doors tomorrow, it's a work in progress. We don't have a specific timeline."
Under the terms of a 99-year lease with the state, Children's will pay the state $650,000 the first year, with subsequent annual payments increasing with inflation. Children's also has an option to pay $29 million, or the approximate present-day value of the entire term, immediately. The lease requires the hospital to use the property to provide mental health care.
Later in the day, however, Children's issued a statement saying the hospital was "puzzled" by Abramson's announcement, saying it did not intend to open the "deteriorated" structure and that Abramson had not spoken to anyone at Children's Hospital before his council address.
In a phone conversation with Gambit, Abramson acknowledged he had no discussions with Children's Hospital officials, but pointed out the lease agreement for the NOAH property requires that the land formerly housing the hospital "shall be administered, managed and operated so as to provide mental health care, including inpatient and outpatient services" consistent with the services provided before the hospital was closed by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration in 2009.
At the time, the administration moved NOAH patients to Southeast Louisiana Hospital (SELH) in St. Tammany Parish. Last year, the state relinquished control of SELH to Florida-based Meridian Behavioral Health Systems.
Abramson, whose district includes NOAH, said many children with mental health issues admitted to New Orleans emergency rooms have no ready access to inpatient psychiatric care and often are shuttled to other hospitals. "We know that sending these kids to Mandeville, sending them to Alexandria, sending them out of state away from their families, is no solution," he said.
If Children's had not signed the lease by Feb. 1, 2013, the state would have been allowed to offer the property to the highest bidder, which also would have to use the NOAH portion for mental health services, Abramson said. Once signed, however, the lease gives Children's two years to bring NOAH up to code. Officials with Children's signed the lease a week before the Feb. 1 deadline.
Children's spokesman Brian Landry confirmed the hospital signed the lease in order to meet the deadline and continue negotiations with the state, adding that Abramson was "accurate with the current lease agreement requirements, but what's also in that lease is our ability to cancel the lease. He knew we were intending to cancel the lease if we're unsuccessful in lifting the restrictions.
"We are anxious to work with Rep. Abramson and the other members of the legislature to continue to look at other ways to expand mental health services for children," Landry added. "We provide a tremendous amount of psychiatric care, and we hope the community understands that we do that."
Councilmembers praised the deal but stressed that it is not the end of discussions with the Jindal administration. "I challenge you to look at adult mental health care going forward," District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said. "When we go to Baton Rouge we're getting the deaf ear ... And let me clarify to the public that we're not getting the deaf ear from our own delegation." — CHARLES MALDONADO