The healthcare sector played a large role in the economies of areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, but whether or not healthcare can maintain that role and be a catalyst for economic recovery in those areas remains to be seen.
Healthcare jobs were some of the highest paying professions in Mississippi and Louisiana, and many residents in the affected areas depended on jobs in the healthcare sector. The Louisiana Hospital Association said the healthcare sector is the largest employer in terms of payroll and the Mississippi Hospital Association said the healthcare sector's payroll ranks in the top three in the state.
About 10% of employees in Louisiana worked in healthcare, which is third behind government and retail trade jobs, according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis' 2003 numbers. In Mississippi, 8% of the jobs are in the healthcare sector, which makes it the fourth-largest industry behind government, manufacturing and retail trade jobs, according to the bureau. About 8% of the jobs in Alabama are in healthcare, the fourth-largest industry behind government, manufacturing and retail-trade jobs, according to bureau data. Alabama's healthcare industry is the third-highest in total compensation behind manufacturing and government.
Those percentages are roughly the same in Orleans Parish and in the six Mississippi counties closest to the coast. Kenneth Thorpe, a health economist at Emory University in Atlanta, said the healthcare industry in the New Orleans area suffered more of a setback than other regions because some of the largest hospitals -- including teaching facilities at 566-bed Medical Center of Louisiana and 341-bed Tulane University Hospital and Clinic -- aren't open.
As of last week, the LHA said that 34 hospitals in the communities most affected by the hurricane are operating, 27 are closed, two are working as federal medical centers and one set up a makeshift clinic. In Mississippi, there were six hospitals in the hardest-hit counties and four were operating last week, according to the state's hospital association. About five hospitals in Alabama were affected, but all remained operational, according to a state hospital association spokeswoman.
"Hospitals are major employers," said James Richardson, an economics professor at Louisiana State University. Richardson said medical research centers can drive some economic recovery by attracting research dollars and training doctors. Still, he doesn't expect healthcare to be the focal point of the recovery.
Tom Getzen, professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and the executive director of the International Health Economics Association, said New Orleans healthcare facilities could play a role in the recovery because they have a stable revenue stream through government and commercial insurers. "I think it will actually drive the recovery because you have all the external funds," he said.
As far as finding patients to treat, Getzen believes residents will return to New Orleans. "You've got a city there," he said. "You're certainly are going to need a substantial number of healthcare facilities."