01 March 2008

Bandaids, buck passing, a scurrilous personal attack and the possible breakdown of cabinet government

Despite posting record operating surpluses in each of the three years since it received reports on the needed repairs and life safety improvement province's hospitals, the Williams administration planned to increase spending on hospital repairs by just two million dollars in its upcoming budget. 

The plan was to spend $14 million instead of the $12 million budgeted in those three record surplus years.

That is until news broke this week of the problems.

647Now, according to Premier Danny Williams , that $14 million will be increased to somewhere between $20 to $28 million. Williams said $14 million of that will go to the four sites in St. John's, including the provincial health centre at the Health Sciences Centre.

You can read about it on the front page of today's Telegram. Williams comments were also reported on NTV News on Friday evening.

Previously secret consultant's reports were released this week by the provincial health department after health minister Ross Wiseman inadvertently referred to them.  The assessments, completed in 2005 showed that four St. John's area health centres required $134 million in required repairs.  over half that amount - $70 million - was classified as currently or potentially critical.

The provincial allocation for St. John's amounts to just 20% of the amount identified as critical or potentially critical just three years ago.  In the meantime, the situations have deteriorated and the costs have increased.  According to CBC, which broke the hospital scandal earlier this week, the bill for St. John's hospitals could top $170 million if all work was done this year.

"It's growing faster than we can keep ahead of it," said Keith Bowden, director of infrastructure and support for Eastern Health, the regional authority that manages all hospitals and clinics in the city area, as well as the rest of eastern Newfoundland.

"I mean, we're not keeping ahead of the curve at all."

The reports on the St. John's hospitals were kept secret despite a written commitment from Williams in his 2003 campaign manual to release government-commissioned reports within 30 days of receipt and to have an action plan made public within 60 days to address the reports.

Reports on other hospitals in the province - so-called facilities reports - may also exist.

According to provincial finance department figures, the Williams administration posted a $524 million surplus on its operating budgets for 2005 (capital and current) and a $141 million surplus in 2006.  In 2007, the surplus is projected to be more than $880 million yet while the finance minister and the health minister knew of the hospitals problem, the surplus was redirected to other spending, including covering some of the costs of creating a government-owned oil and gas company.

In the Telegram, Williams defended his health minister saying that Wiseman didn't create the problems. 'We inherited this and we inherited a mess," Williams said.  While that's true Williams' administration also hasn't done anything to deal with the problem and obviously hadn't planned to do anything until the secret reports were uncovered by media inquiries.

For his part, Williams denied knowing anything about the reports. Given the Premier's penchant for nano-management, his claim seems odd but if we take him at his word - there's no reason not to - Williams has now pointed to a far more sinister problem within his administration. 

If Williams is correct, three successive ministers of health, including the man he just appointed to head the energy company's board of directors withheld crucial information from him and potentially other members of cabinet.

Williams claim suggests a fundamental breakdown in the operations of cabinet government in the province. Ministers cannot properly make crucial decisions, such as government spending, if details of major issues are hidden from them.  The secrecy cloak that apparently kept these reports from the public also applies within government too, if Williams' comments are accepted at face value.

Opposition parties were highly critical of the Williams' administration handling of the hospital scandal this week.

"This report has sat on the desk of three ministers," [Liberal health critic Roland] Butler said.

"Yes, the debt has to be looked after," said Butler, who said Health Minister Ross Wiseman should be lobbying Finance Minister Tom Marshall, "trying to find out if he can get the money to correct those serious issues, sooner rather than later."

New Democratic Party leader Lorraine Michael called on Williams to relieve Wiseman in light of his performance on a serious of scandals within the department.  In an interview with NTV news, Williams attacked Michael personally, claiming she was being hypocritical to criticize Wiseman when she herself had been looking for a raise from the House of Assembly management committee. 

There's no logical connection between the two issues, but the attack was a trademark Williams' personal smear.

Update:  CBC has other examples of repairs needed in hospitals around the province. Seems there are hospitals without sprinkler systems. 

CBC's Deanne Fleet reported on this in the Friday news cast.  Neither the fire commissioner nor municipal affairs minister Dave Denine were available Friday to take questions on the growing controversy.  Denine and health minister Ross Wiseman dropped the regulatory hammer on 22 personal care homes in the province just three weeks ago for not having sprinklers installed.

Operators, who had been warned of the sprinkler issue in 2003, were given just 30 days to install systems or get signed contracts for installation or face immediate closure.

You can likely figure out Fleet's questions to the fire commissioner and to Denine.