North Island Regional Hospital Plan Hits Another Brick Wall

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than two years now since the Victoria-based Vancouver Island Health Authority used an open-house, one-way informational session to unveil its plans to impose a North Island Regional Hospital on the Island somewhere in the area from Courtenay north to a supposedly-"neutral” spot south of Campbell River.

But it has; and two years later not only the location but also the very concept has become a massive and very hot potato for many people in both the Comox Valley and in Campbell River – in large part because, in the process of all this, VIHA has refused to be clear on exactly what services it is prepared to commit to maintaining in the two community hospitals in the vicinity: St. Joseph’s in Comox and Campbell River General.

Most recently, in the leadup to Christmas, that refusal led to a letter to VIHA, claiming to represent all of Campbell River’s doctors, accusing VIHA of moral blackmail in trying to foist a regional hospital on an area where many thousands of people are unalterably and adamantly opposed to the whole concept, especially if it’s to be a P3 (Public-Private Partnership) – as fully expected under Premier Gordon Campbell’s clearly-stated policy of some months ago, that all projects over $25 million will be P3s.

That policy, charge the opponents and critics of the NVIRH proposal, inevitably means that if the hospital finally goes ahead, it will be used to try an experiment in the privatization of the hospital health-care.

Instead of the hospital though, the plan’s opponents have raised a number of protest petitions (signed by up to nearly 20,000 people) calling for a dual-hospital program by VIHA: a full and strong advance commitment to doing the costly (but much cheaper) vital seismic upgrades needed at both St. Jo’s and CRGH, and also to maintaining a full slate of services at each facility that allow them to continue to share a regional-hospital role for everyone from the Comox Valley and north.

That’s a role the doctors from the two communities agree they’ve been able to provide to a reasonable degree for the whole region, despite CRGH having been allowed (some would say "forced” by inadequate funding by this and previous governments) to shrink from more than 100 to 56 beds over the past 25 years.

All kinds of problems and concerns have been identified with the regional hospital concept for the area, ranging from difficulties of access a long distance out of town down an often dangerously-slippery dangerous Inland Island Highway, and the lack of water, sewage and electricity services in the area between the Valley and the outskirts of Campbell River, all the way to fears of a new community developing around the hospital and drawing resident doctors, nurses, medical staff and ancillary support staff away from living in Campbell River to live around the new facility, and the resulting undermining of the community’s economy and its development as a retirement area.

The concept even came under severe attack as being environmentally unfriendly and even "non-green” and contrary to Premier Campbell’s energy-saving program, by forcing ambulances, patients, families, friends, volunteers, police and fire department and other service personnel to drive unnecessarily long distances for visits, tests and other programs.

Particularly for many Riverites though, the sorest point and most frustrating was the serious and continuing lack of meaningful consultation with the public at large, not simply by VIHA but also by neophyte Mayor Roger McDonell and City Council, which metaphorically dragged the entire community as a whole down the road towards a new regional hospital supporting the general concept.

In vain, people pointed out that the concept had been tried elsewhere and proved a dismal failure riddled with heightened costs – financial and in patient care, suffering and even lives.

That was followed by City Council timidly going along with the regional hospital board in agreeing with the VIHA board’s unexpectedly-timed and unilateral decision to put the hospital on some 40 acres of land offered as a donation by TimberWest, in the area of the highway’s Dove Creek Intersection 40 kms south of Campbell River.

The regional hospital board’s support for that location was later withdrawn, but then support was expressed by Riverite municipal representatives for the idea (unsurprisingly originating from the Comox Valley members) to have it in one of the three municipalities in the Valley.

That triggered enormous concern not just by the public in Campbell River, but also by the community’s doctors, who had previously supported the regional concept but then demonstrated just how inconvenient and time-consuming a Valley location would be for them and their busy workloads of patients, by going down to the Valley to protest to the board.

But that just highlighted how committed to the concept VIHA was, with Chief Executive Officer Harold Waldner refusing to take up the challenge to make any commitment on behalf of the VIHA board to maintain the current services at St. Jo’s and CRGH while the regional hospital is designed, funded and built, perhaps 10 years or more "down the road”, so to speak.

Waldner didn’t even stay to hear the doctors remind the board that, despite what VIHA tries to claim, just building a new hospital will not guarantee that it will be able to attract the doctors and specialists to service it, since there is already a widening shortage of doctors in Canada and the hospital would be competing with other large and well-equipped hospitals in the major city centres.

In the end, the regional hospital board agreed to put together a task force of two doctors each from the two areas, under the chairing of a representative of VIHA, to look strictly at the issue of the location, and not the broader idea of a new regional hospital.

But, as anticipated, the doctors could not reach a consensus as requested, and the whole furor will be returning to the regional hospital board in January, just as the provincial government moves into splitting the Comox-Strathcona Regional District (whose directors make up the regional hospital board) in two.

Even though it’s supported by the development-obsessed City Council, that program – initially developed by Liberal cabinet minister Stan Hagen of the Comox Valley but now being put into place by his cabinet colleague Ida Chong – has also angered numbers of people in the NDP-held Campbell River area. They see it, more than somewhat indisputably, as yet another costly government program imposed on the area by the Campbell Liberal government without any public consultation, to help potentially-unwanted economic development to overcome rural opposition.

Quentin Dodd is a journalist in Campbell River.