28 April 2012

Corner Brook hospital: follow the money talk #nlpoli

Let’s get something clear up front.

The provincial government will build a new hospital in Corner Brook.

That much shouldn’t be in doubt.  The existing Western Memorial Hospital is long past due to be replaced.  The provincial government has the cash in the bank.  And even if they didn’t, they’d have to find the money somehow to build it.  That’s the thing about hospitals.  You have to build them even if you don;t have money in the bank.

The current political problem finance minister Tom Marshall faces in his hometown comes from the usual problem he and his colleagues seem to have:  they announce something, put timelines on it and then fail to deliver on time.

Then the other problem cuts in:  they resort to all sorts of bluster and such, all the while insisting that absolutely nothing is wrong. That’s the thing about the Tories:  you always know what they are going to say. 

Tom Marshall went to the Corner Brook Board of Trade on Friday to talk about the budget and, inevitably, the hospital. The Western Star sent Gary Kean out to report on it.  He’ll stay in politics until the steel for the hospital starts going up, insisted Marshall, “and I plan on going soon.”

Good on both points:  Marshall was supposed to retire last year.  He put it off as part of the deal cut inside the Tory caucus that left Kathy Dunderdale as leader to get them through the election.  Marshall is due to go as are a number of others, including, most likely, Dunderdale herself.

As for the money supply, he was equally firm that there wasn’t a problem.  He’s a quote from the Western Star story:

“That is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in a long time,” Marshall said, when asked about criticism that government doesn’t have the money to proceed with construction right now.

“We are flush with cash. Our financial position is the strongest it has ever been. The economy is as strong as it’s ever been.”

Let us forget, for the moment, that the main message Tom is carrying around these days is that the provincial government coffers are flush with cash.  They are full to overflowing.  And now, having just finished spending public money the likes of which we have never seen in this province before – including taking the public debt to record heights -  Marshall  must now start on a 10 year program of spending cuts and layoffs in the provincial government the likes of which we have never seen in the country before, let alone the province.

Let us just forget all that for a moment.

Let us also dial back Tom’s inevitable hyperbolic outburst a bit.  They will have the cash. They will have to find the cash because they need to replace the hospital.

And so they will build a new hospital once they figure out what they want the hospital to do.

The first plan the health department came up with wasn’t the right one, according to health minister Susan Sullivan.  According to the Western Star,

Sullivan said the plan did not adequately reflect the province’s changing demographic, so planners were sent back to the drawing board to come up with a better programming strategy.

When the Western Star wondered how that could have happened, Sullivan claimed she didn’t know.  She wasn’t the minister when they started so she had no idea what they were asked to do.

And as for what “better programming strategy” means or what the “demographic“ thingy was, she didn’t let on. Those are wonderfully vague terms, wonderful bits of bureaucratic gobbledygook. What it sounds, like, though, is the same sort of problem the current administration have run into with other major projects.

The health centre in Lewisporte, for example, went so far over budget that the provincial government started hacking out services in order to get the costs under control. That was at the heart of the problems in 2009 that contributed to Paul Oram’s untimely departure from politics.

So while Corner Brook will get a new hospital - at some point in the future - the major problem seems to be a familiar one:  balancing what gets done in the hospital with what it costs to build it. Part of that problem could be in whatever promises He Who Must Not Be Named suggested eons ago that are simply no longer affordable, if they ever were in the first place.

Almost certainly, part of the hang up is within the health department.  After all, they are trying to cope with increasing pressures on budgets at a time when cash is getting tighter and tighter.  You see that’s the real issue.  Corner Brook will get a hospital, but the government’s financial and demographic problems will have a profound impact on what the hospital costs and therefore what the final hospital winds up doing.

Now as for all that financial stuff Tom Marshall mentioned that we said we’d forget for a moment?

Well, the moment is up.

- srbp -