NDP commits billions for hospitals in contentious ridings

$56.7m hospital-designated land has sat vacant in Vancouver awaiting government approvals

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announces new funding for hospitals during a February 15 press press event | Jeremy Hainsworth

The BC NDP government has committed billions to new hospital facilities throughout B.C. while the largest such project – to replace the 124-year-old St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver – has only now been announced for go-ahead.

The $56.7 million False Creek Flats land earmarked for the project sits where Liberal Sam Sullivan’s Vancouver-False Creek riding abuts strong NDP East Vancouver territory. While the BC Liberals have held the Vancouver-False Creek riding since its 2008 creation, it’s possible the gift of a hospital could swing voters in a riding where support has been slipping toward the NDP. Indeed, the 2017 vote resulted in a recount with the NDP’s Morgane Oger coming within 415 votes (out of almost 22,000 cast) of unseating Sullivan.

Premier John Horgan and Minister of Health Adrian Dix announced Feb. 15 the St. Paul’s Hospital is going ahead at the controversial site.

St. Paul’s Hospital is one of B.C.’s biggest health-care facilities, serving people from around the province. A replacement project was floated in 2004 under Liberal premier Gordon Campbell. His successor, Christy Clark, also made commitments to replace the crumbling facility with a new False Creek development. The purchasing of the land through a public-private partnership for hospital operator Providence Health Care was completed in 2015.

While communities no doubt willingly accept improvements to local health care, other recently announced hospitals’ locations beg the question as to whether or not the government is using public funds to push electoral goals. Not a few of the facilities are located in ridings where NDP candidates barely triumphed over incumbent Liberals, while others are in strongly held ridings of former Liberal cabinet ministers, long foes of the NDP.

Liberal health critic Norm Letnick says many of the plans echo his party’s proposals leading into the 2017 election but added the NDP platform lacked the dollar figures the Liberal plan contained – including St. Paul’s.

“People who take the credit politically for work are generally not the ones who did the work,” Letnick said, adding he will be asking Minister of Health Adrian Dix about many recently announced projects when 2019 budget work begins soon.

NDP provincial director Raj Sihota disagrees. “The BC NDP government is investing a lot in hospitals after years of BC Liberal neglect,” Sihota said. “Every corner of the province is seeing the results of a government committed to improving services.

One curiosity is Dix’s July 2018 commitment of $360 million for a new, $600 million Cowichan Valley hospital between Victoria and Nanaimo, an area with a population of 90,000.

Dix said with the current hospital now 50 years old, action is critical. But, the new hospital is in a riding where the NDP needs some support. The seat is held by BC Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau, an implacable foe of the Liberals, whose work was key to the creation of the Confidence and Supply Agreement through which the Greens support the NDP in power.

Another curiosity is the timing of $33.5 million for an intensive care unit at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. Longtime NDP MLA Leonard Krog announced in June 2018 he would run to be Nanaimo’s mayor in November 2018’s municipal election. Nine days before his November 30 resignation as MLA, the hospital funding was announced. In the resulting January 30 byelection, victorious NPD candidate Sheila Malcolmson scored 3% more of the vote than Krog had in 2017.

Letnick said it was “convenient it happened at the time of the byelection.”

The St. Paul’s replacement is now the biggest project in the province. That title had belonged to the $1.35 billion redevelopment of New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital – in the riding of NDP Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy. Her riding is a longtime NDP stronghold.

What’s curious about the project is that, after completion of the $259 million Phase 1 under the Liberals, the NDP switched the project from a public-private partnership to a design-build project.

That switch is of particular interest to Letnick and one he will be pressing Dix about in budget debates.

“When you do that, there’s a potential for delays, rising costs,” Letnick said. “I’m a little concerned about that.”

Then, there are the projects in former Liberal cabinet ministers’ ridings.

A new Fort St. James hospital in former Liberal cabinet minister John Rustad’s riding was greenlighted by Dix in October with a business plan expected to take 12 to 18 months. No budget was announced, although the government said the 56-year-old hospital is outdated.

Another former Liberal cabinet member whose riding is getting hospital improvements is Langley East’s Rich Coleman, no friend of the NDP. The government committed $29.3 million for expansion of Langley Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.

A new tower for Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital, announced in August, is expected to cost the Ministry of Health, Interior Health and the Thompson Regional Hospital District $397.2 million. The project is in Liberal MLA and former cabinet minister Todd Stone’s riding.

Also, there are the swing ridings, those that have fluctuated between the NDP and Liberals – or Social Credit before them.

The Skeena riding, currently held by Liberal Ellis Ross, is an example. Dix announced in January 2018 $370 million to replace Mills Memorial Hospital.

Another such riding is Cariboo-Chilcotin, held by Liberal Donna Barnett. In February 2018 Dix announced $100 million for a new Williams Lake hospital.

And, as those projects unfold, the St. Paul’s situation remains no longer limbo with approval of the business case for the project. Requests from both Providence and the Ministry of Health for the cost of the business case have yielded nothing.