updated 4/30/2007 7:23:41 PM ET 2007-04-30T23:23:41

Doctors at a hospital outside New Orleans sued the state Monday, seeking $100 million they say they are owed for providing free care to poor and uninsured patients following Hurricane Katrina.

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The lawsuit, brought by 381 physicians at West Jefferson Medical Center, says the state failed to reimburse them for treating indigent patients since the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane closed the state-funded Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

“This is severely straining our area emergency rooms, and the lack of proper outpatient care is harming these patients,” said K. Barton Farris, medical director of the Jefferson Parish hospital’s laboratory.

The state Department of Health and Hospitals set aside about $120 million last year to care for indigent and uninsured patients statewide, but that money goes to hospitals and not to physicians’ private practices, Farris said.

Farris estimates that 30 percent of the patients admitted to the medical center’s emergency room after the hurricane were poor or uninsured. Outside the emergency room, the uninsured account for 13 percent of the hospital’s patients, up from 5.4 percent before Katrina, he said.

He said the hospital’s increased workload is driving away many young physicians and making it difficult for the medical center to recruit new doctors.

“Without this funding, our health care system is at risk, putting our whole community at risk,” Farris said.

The medical center itself is not a party in the lawsuit.

Department spokesman Robert Johannessen said the state can reimburse hospitals, but not private physicians, for treating indigent patients. However, he said, the state helped secure $8 million in federal money for private physicians who provided care to the poor after Katrina.

“We have gone to bat for them in the past,” Johannessen said. “We have been working to secure additional funding for the doctors.”

This month, a consultant hired by the state recommended replacing Charity Hospital with a new $1.2 billion, 484-bed hospital in New Orleans. Federal funding would account for about $400 million of the cost.

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