The New Orleans Faith Health Alliance

What Hurricane Katrina taught me about the future of health care

by Janet DiLeo Wade

The morning before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, my youngest son Jeff and I packed our family’s most precious possessions in our Toyota 4-Runner and along with our dog Corky joined the exodus of thousands of people to safer ground. As the platoon of cars crossed the Mississippi border, I approached an overpass on which a sheet was hung saying “God bless you on your journey.” With a lump in my throat and a heavy heart, I drove to Memphis to the safety of my family living there.

Upon receiving news of damage to my son’s school, our home, and our neighborhood in suburban New Orleans, we decided to spend the fall school semester in Memphis. We were among 45,000 evacuees who experienced an outpouring of kindness and generosity from the city’s community. Answering a call for volunteers as a community health nurse, I was assigned to work at the Church Health Center (CHC) in Memphis. In retrospect, it was perhaps God’s providence that during my stay I was given the opportunity to attend one of the Center’s replication workshops that train people from across the country on how to start a faith-based health clinic like the CHC. The experience resonated with me when I returned to New Orleans and found a devastated city. I felt empty and powerless. All I could think was, “Why were so many people affected by the devastation and yet I was spared?”

I then knew in my heart that I was one of the people charged with lifting up those who were suffering such hardship. This was a time in the history of New Orleans to begin health care anew and to introduce the innovative faith-based health care delivery program I had seen in Memphis. Following the CHC model, this new initiative would provide people who are working, yet uninsured, with a medical home and a continuity of care. Such a place would also offer them the educational tools and support to help them take responsibility for their own health and that of their family members. These were, and continue to be, the people who are helping to rebuild the city. They are small business owners and their employees, hotel and restaurant staff, domestics, construction workers, students and entrepreneurs.

The management of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans along with Baptist Community Ministries and Kaiser-Permanente, agreed to support the planning of a faith-based comprehensive health care delivery program. Additional contributions both large and small made by corporate and individual donors have sustained the center through three years of planning and development and two years of operation. Serving a diverse multi-cultural patient base, New Orleans Faith Health Alliance (NOFHA) now has over 600 patient members that claim it as their medical home. Housed in the community building of First Grace United Methodist Church at 3401 Canal Street, it is a collaborative partnership with the medical, business, academic and faith communities of New Orleans.

Ann, a NOFHA member reflects that, “When the world changed in 2005 many things were lost, including the health insurance I had not been without all my working life. We as a family made too much money to qualify for public health assistance and had resorted to expensive visits to the emergency room for only the direst things.” Hearing about NOFHA “was like heaven had heard my prayers … The whole team has been wonderful … I had my first basic physical in five years. The relief has been tremendous. I’m not as worried about my health since I have partners now who are there to work with me.”

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