Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Field Report: VISTA Screening of Big Charity – Omote Ekwotafia

First, do no harm. I wish this was part of some kind of public service oath— a promise that if you pledge to serve your community, your service will leave it better off. Not that mistakes won’t be made, but you will be held accountable for those mistakes.

With the recent water crisis in Flint and similar ones across the country, there is a genuine and legitimate mistrust of authority. After a recent screening of Big Charity: The Death of America’s Oldest Hospital, I wonder if the mistrust is always warranted and how the poor can feel secure enough to risk believing it is not.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans

Charity Hospital, New Orleans, LA. Photo: Infrogmation via GNU Free Documentation License.

Big Charity tells the story of Charity Hospital in New Orleans; it is a historical landmark and, for many, hallowed ground. After Hurricane Katrina, some involved with Charity Hospital wanted to reopen, possibly renovate, the hospital and others wanted to create an entirely new hospital system that could compete on a national stage. University Medical Center (UMC), a medical center of the future. Regardless of who had the better idea, indigent people in need of healthcare suffered while bureaucrats battled over dollars and cents, and the antiquated versus the state-of-the-art. In fact, according to the film, some New Orleanian deaths can be traced to a lack of medical services during this battle; these are services that would have been available had the powers that be breathed new life into the Charity hospital facility. Additionally, there seems to be a silent implication that, after the storm, unnamed individuals intentionally damaged the facility in an effort to ensure the winning side.

Still, what’s done is done and time travel is still reserved for fiction. So, are advocates dwelling on the past—by pointing out mistakes that can’t be undone? A colleague suggested that people should let go and move forward; I agree, in part. People should move on, but maybe what makes it so hard is the depth of the issue for those it affected–the poor. What is more, to this day, there is a lack of accountability for the alleged actions taken all for the sake of federal money—public money. Perhaps holding anyone accountable would help with the moving on. Big Charity is one-sided, certainly, but it seems widely known, even if not so freely discussed, that certain mysterious individuals took part in insidious, bordering on legally fraudulent, actions. Why is that okay? How is it different from an individual burning down his house to get his insurance to pay for a new one? Is position and power all that is needed to shut down even the idea of a public discussion? If so, what about the people without position and power?

Even if the documentary leaves out information, I can’t help but wonder what information would have justified the alleged actions taken. Advocates for a new healthcare facility argue they were fighting for the greater good, so is it simply a matter of perspective? Even when we assume they were fighting with the best of intentions, this drawn out fight indirectly denied medical services to people when they needed it most. People died in this quest for good. Where is the line, who draws it, and how do we make that person accountable if it turns out a bit crooked?

In the movie, UMC supporters kept repeating over and over again that Charity only catered to the indigent—as if that made the hospital exclusionary, as if that population had a wealth of options. Currently, the hospital meant to expand care to all people is considering walking away from state contracts that obligated care for the indigent. The cynic in me can’t say I didn’t see that coming. In a recent nola.com article, UMC CEO Greg Feirn says, ”We can’t risk our balance sheet to fund what’s otherwise a state obligation.” So, now what?

Big Charity created way more questions than answers, but one thing I do walk away with is the depth of human character and the will to survive—as shown by the patients and staff of Charity Hospital. During catastrophic events and plunged into a nightly darkness, they joined together to proclaim a victory over circumstances they viewed to be temporary. It’s truly inspirational. Big Charity also reinforces my belief that traditionally public services should remain public. Privatizing public services eliminates public accountability and opens the door for a niche clientele in arenas that should be more concerned with general welfare. Another thing I have realized is how profound the need is for transparency when it comes to public services, especially when public money is involved. People want to know that they matter enough to be part of the process that impacts their lives. Certainly, they want to know all the players in the game, because where there is no conspiracy, locked doors and drawn shades can create the illusion of one.


Watch the trailer for Big Charity.



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