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N.O. should use new medical complex to promote economic development, speaker says

By Jaquetta White

The Advocate

September 23, 2014

In order to take full advantage of the massive medical complex taking shape along Tulane Avenue, New Orleans residents should reconsider the definition of the word “hospital,” Greater New Orleans Inc. CEO Michael Hecht said Tuesday.

He said a hospital is not, as it was described by Leslie Nielsen in the classic 1980 comedy “Airplane!,” a “big building with patients.”

“If we want to talk about economic development, we’ve got to get away from that,” Hecht said. “It only becomes economic development if you’re bringing in the new, if you’re grabbing dollars from outside of the region, outside of the state and bringing it inside here.”

Hospitals and medical research centers should serve as a catalyst for new development, he said.

The way to do that, he said, is to establish the New Orleans region as a “center of excellence” in some area of medical research.

Hecht and New Orleans BioInnovation Center President Aaron Miscenich were guest speakers Tuesday at a “breakfast briefing” of the Bureau of Governmental Research. They discussed the future of the health care and bioscience industries in New Orleans and statewide.

The $2 billion investment being made in the University Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center is expected to result in thousands of jobs and “really no downside” for the region, Hecht said. But there is an opportunity for something even greater, he said.

He pointed to the Texas Medical Center in Houston as an example of what the New Orleans medical complex could produce. The Texas Medical Center is responsible for 222,000 jobs, $5.8 billion in annual economic impact and one-quarter of all hotel stays in Houston, he said.

By establishing itself as a destination for health care, particularly for cancer patients, Houston also has become a place where companies involved in cancer research want to set up shop.

“That’s the sweet spot. That’s when you’re really making it work in terms of economic development,” Hecht said. “That’s what we want to get to.”

New Orleans can follow Houston’s example by laying claim to a field such as neuroscience and neurodegenerative disease, where health concerns are great, interest in addressing them is high and no other city has established itself as the center of research, Hecht said.

The state could exploit that opportunity by using the newly established MediFund, he said.

The fund, created during the last legislative session and based on the concept of the MegaFund used by the state to incentivize large projects, is expected to offer planning grants of up to $500,000 to get people thinking about how to create centers of excellence. Another $10 million to $20 million would be available to lure top researchers and their teams and equipment to New Orleans.

“At the end of the day, as beautiful as (the medical complex) is, people aren’t going to come here for the beautiful new building,” Hecht said. “They’re going to come here for the beautiful health care.”

The MediFund is currently unfunded, however. Hecht said GNO Inc. will work with legislators to fund the program at the next legislative session through a tax on cigarette purchases.

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