Gulf Watch: Lawsuit seeks to reopen New Orleans' Charity Hospital

Attorneys representing uninsured patients filed a lawsuit today to require Louisiana to reopen Charity Hospital or to take other measures to care for people with chronic health conditions that have been worsened by a lack of access to doctors since Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana has one of the highest rates of uninsured residents in the nation.

The suit comes as Walter Kaelin -- special representative to the United Nations' Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons -- is visiting New Orleans and other Gulf communities to discuss how the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement apply to those displaced by Katrina. A report on the Guiding Principles' applicability to Katrina survivors released this week by the Institute for Southern Studies details how the lack of health care access since the storm implicates Guiding Principle 28, which calls on authorities to establish conditions allowing internally displaced persons to return home "in safety and with dignity."

New Orleans' death rate has risen 47 percent since the two years preceding Katrina, and a recent survey found that 36 percent of residents of the New Orleans metro area reported reduced access to health care. The problem is especially severe for the city's African-American residents, 72 percent of whom reported reduced health care access -- evidence of underlying racial discrimination that's also prohibited by the Guiding Principles.

After Katrina, Louisiana State University reopened University Hospital -- part of so-called "Big Charity" -- to provide care to the region's uninsured, but that facility does not provide the same range of services that Charity offered and has only 171 beds compared to 550 that the two hospitals previously had.

The attorneys who filed the pro bono suit include Calvin Johnson, Bill Quigley and Tracie Washington of New Orleans; Stephen Rosenfeld of Boston; Thomas Milliner of Metairie; Steven Berman of Seattle; and Leonard Aragon of Phoenix.