It is time for the Yukon government to justify its decision to build regional hospital facilities in Watson Lake and Dawson City.
The cost of these two facilities is pegged at $50 million.
And currently, Whitehorse General Hospital, which was downsized by the Yukon Party during its construction in 1992, is at capacity. Its 49 beds are often full.
That’s the justification Yukon Hospital Corporation chair Craig Tuton used yesterday when discussing the construction plans.
Public consultation identified a need for more community care, said Tuton. He was murky about whether that meant bolstering Whitehorse as the region’s hospital, or building two more hospitals in rural Yukon.
But the government has, for some reason, decided to pursue the community hospital model. It must now explain that decision, because building, staffing and maintaining those hospitals is going to be tremendously expensive.
Officials may argue the Yukon Hospital Corporation is now responsible for the projects and has to answer those questions.
But it was the government that announced the projects, then recently farmed out responsibility to the Yukon Hospital Corp.
It did this for political reasons. It wanted to shift the sizable debt to the charitable organization, keeping it off the government’s books. That maintains the illusion the government has more money at its disposal than it actually does.
But it puts the hospital corporation in a difficult spot.
It relies on charitable donations from the public. Events like the Festival of Trees raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization every year.
The hospital uses these charitable donations to buy needed equipment.
But now, thanks to the Yukon government, the hospital is in the construction business and is in the process of finalizing a $67-million loan to cover the cost of its two new hospitals and a residence for doctors and nurses, which is expected to cost $17 million.
The interest rate to be charged the corporation by CIBC for the two hospitals is not yet known. But it will be charged prime for the $17-million residence loan.
Paying 2.25 per cent interest (the current prime rate) on that single loan will siphon millions from the corporation into the coffers of a private bank.
So, as noted recently by New Democrat Party Leader Elizabeth Hanson, you have the public holding events to raise donations for needed hospital equipment while the corporation is spending up to a million a year to service a private bank loan.
How do officials justify this?
The Yukon government could, over a series of years, underwrite the cost of these construction projects, much as it has done with the Whitehorse jail and its new high school. So why has the charitable hospital corporation allowed itself to be used this way?
And, in doing so, how does it answer the people who organize events, donating time and money to ensure it has cash for “much-needed” equipment when it is simply handing millions to a private corporation in needless interest payments?
As well, how does it justify building $25-million hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City? It would be good to hear rational arguments justifying this decision.
In December, the Watson Lake health facility was used to handle overflow from the Whitehorse hospital. That is, Whitehorse patients were medevaced to Watson Lake because of a shortage of hospital beds in the city. And this week, on CBC Radio One, Tuton cited the shortage of hospital beds in Whitehorse as a justification for building the rural hospitals.
Citizens need to ask whether it makes sense to designate Dawson City and Watson Lake as overflow facilities to the territory’s largest hospital, and medevac people to the frontier at $6,000 a pop.
Or would it be better to expand the existing Whitehorse hospital, the busiest and best-equipped facility, and simply have decent nursing stations in rural towns?
What is a better use of public funds? What approach will cost more in operations and maintenance spending?
After all, health care already costs the Yukon government more than $220 million a year. The territory should be considering ways to keep that cost down.
It would be helpful if the territory released a salient plan for the future of hospital care in the territory.
In fact, it is beyond time it did so.
Unfortunately, no information is forthcoming.
Watson Lake and Dawson City support the Yukon Party. These days, that seems to be justification enough. (Richard Mostyn)