Hospital borrowing to top $100M

As a past chair of the Yukon Hospital Corporation, Marny Ryder knows how difficult it can be to extract money from government. How, she wondered at the corporation's annual meeting Wednesday evening, is the current chair, Craig Tuton, so successful at this task?

As a past chair of the Yukon Hospital Corporation, Marny Ryder knows how difficult it can be to extract money from government.

How, she wondered at the corporation’s annual meeting Wednesday evening, is the current chair, Craig Tuton, so successful at this task? “You’ve been an absolute miracle worker,” said Ryder.

While Tuton demurred, insisting the rest of the board deserved praise, the obvious answer to Ryder’s question went unspoken: Tuton is the long-time campaign organizer for Premier Dennis Fentie, and he enjoys a cozy relationship with his political masters.

As the chair of both the hospital corporation and, until recently, the workers compensation board, Tuton has wielded considerable clout. Some wags have taken to calling him an unelected cabinet minister.

And he’s certainly overseen an influx of new money. But it’s not from government.

It’s borrowed from the bank, and will have to be repaid by future governments. That’s led critics to suggest the Yukon Party government is mortgaging the territory’s future for the bragging rights that come with new buildings.

The corporation has already borrowed $67 million to build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City and a new medical residence in Whitehorse. And Tuton’s not done yet.

The corporation is forging ahead with plans to borrow an additional $40-50 million to build a new emergency room at Whitehorse General Hospital, Tuton told the crowd of about 50 people in attendance.

Not everyone was impressed.

Don Roberts, a former Liberal health minister, expressed outrage over what he saw as secretive planning and exorbitant costs.

Each new hospital is to be equipped with six in-patient beds and is expected to cost $25 million. That works out to $4 million per in-patient bed, noted Roberts. “When I share that with people Outside, they just can’t believe it.”

Roberts neglected to mention the total cost pays for a lot more than overnight beds. The facilities will also each feature six day beds, and clinics for dentists and visiting specialists, among other things.

Most jurisdictions in Canada are centralizing their hospitals to save costs, said Roberts. “We’re going the opposite way. Where’s the justification for that?”

And he expressed doubts about the claims that the new hospitals will serve as regional hubs. Services will be limited at the facilities. Neither will see the delivery of babies.

More often than not, residents of places such as Old Crow will continue to travel to Whitehorse or Vancouver to see medical specialists, said Roberts.

“You’re way over your head,” he told Tuton.

But Tuton has a knack for deflecting awkward questions. The skill came in handy during the meeting.

“I don’t make decisions,” Tuton told Roberts. “The decisions are made by the board.”

As for the ambitious hospital-building plans: “We happen to think it’s a real good investment in the future.”

Roberts would later deride the new medical residence, being built for $17 million, as a “Cadillac” apartment block. A local architect has asserted that such a building of that size should only cost $5 million, Roberts noted.

The new, three-storey medical residence will offer 34 apartments to visiting nurses and doctors on its two upper floors and office space and a daycare on the lower floors. It’s to replace an aging complex that’s affectionately referred to by health staff as “the gulag,” and is expected to be complete by December.

Part of the building will be rented out as office space to government. Another section will serve as a daycare for hospital employees. The rental scheme appears to be a case of “the left hand paying the right hand,” said Roberts.

“Don, you’re making misstatements,” said Tuton. “It’s not a luxury apartment. It’s a building we’ve needed at the hospital for many years.”

The government needed more office space, he said. “What better way than to combine the two projects?” asked Tuton.

Laura MacFeeters later asked why the decision was made to include a daycare for hospital staff in the facility. When an affordable housing project in Riverdale looked into the supply of daycare for the neighbourhood, they found adequate services already exist, she said.

But Rao Tadepelli, president of the Yukon Medical Association, had only praise to offer for the new building. Rats and radiator leaks have been reported in the old digs, he said in an interview.

“The place is disgusting. It’s an embarrassment.”

Audrey McLaughlin, Yukon’s former MP, wanted to know how much it would cost to staff the new hospitals. She had written to the hospital corporation’s board in the spring to ask for this information and had never received a response.

Watson Lake’s existing hospital costs just over $4 million annually to operate, said MacGillivray. Both new hospitals should not cost much more, he said.

It’s been said these costs would triple or quadruple the operating costs of previous arrangements.

But this is “absolutely not correct,” MacGillivray later said in an interview, because the hospital corporation’s costs include management expenses that are otherwise spread across several government departments.

The new Watson Lake hospital is to be built by the end of 2011. Dawson City’s hospital is to be complete by the end of 2012. Both projects are “still on budget and on time,” said Tuton.

Plans to re-open the Thomson Centre to elderly patients have been pushed back until February. The government originally aimed to have 29 of the building’s 44 rooms open by September.

The centre was built in 1993 as a continuing care facility under Tony Penikett’s NDP government. But it has been plagued with water leaks, mould infestations and other problems. So, for the past eight years its rooms, built to provide continuing and palliative care to the elderly, have sat empty. The building is currently used as office space and to house physio and occupational therapists.

Work to bring the building up to code is expected to cost $1.5 million.

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