Political promos paid with public purse

The Yukon Party government is defending its decision to build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City through advertisements on popular websites such as Facebook. But the Yukon Party isn't paying for the ads.

The Yukon Party government is defending its decision to build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City through advertisements on popular websites such as Facebook.

But the Yukon Party isn’t paying for the ads. You are, by way of the publicly funded Yukon Hospital Corporation.

Last month the corporation began using its advertising budget to defend the controversial projects, which are being built with $50 million in borrowed money, by placing newspaper advertisements that assert the two projects will save the territory money in the long run.

Now ads are appearing online, and they aren’t limited to Facebook. They’re also found on news sites, including yukon-news.com.

The ads send viewers to a new website, movingcloser.ca, which features computer renderings of the new facilities, some carefully selected statistics and an online survey that, if completed, could win respondents an iPod Touch.

It’s unclear how much it all costs. Craig Tuton, chair of the hospital corporation, reacted with incredulity when asked the price of the new site.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he said Monday, shortly before hanging up the phone.

The hospital corporation has no mandate to take sides in a public policy debate, said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell. He calls the advertising blitz “questionable.”

NDP Leader Elizabeth Hanson, meanwhile, calls the new website “a subtle form of propaganda.” Almost all the online survey questions are posed as statements that agree with the course already set by the hospital corporation, she noted.

Here are a few of the statements respondents are asked to agree or disagree with: Dawson City needs a hospital and it should be operated by the corporation; the existing Watson Lake Hospital should be managed by the corporation; and, the corporation should borrow money to build new hospitals in Yukon.

The one exception to these leading questions is when respondents are asked whether they prefer to go Outside for medical treatment.

Both the Liberals and NDP agree that Watson Lake and Dawson City need new medical facilities. But they question whether the solution is to build 24-hour acute-care hospitals.

If there’s evidence that such facilities best meet the needs of rural Yukoners, it hasn’t been made public by the government. Nor did any analysis of the costs and benefits of the new hospitals turn up when the Yukon News filed an access to information request.

But the Yukon Party is wagering that the populations surrounding both Watson Lake and Dawson City will explode in the coming decade, thanks to an impending mining boom. And they say that new, acute-care hospitals are the best way to serve rural residents.

The new hospitals will double or treble health operating costs in both communities, resulting in several million in new annual expenditures for the territory.

But Premier Dennis Fentie claims the hospitals will save the territory money by cutting down on the need to transport rural residents to Whitehorse or Outside.

Mitchell doubts it. Rural Yukoners will continue to travel to Whitehorse or Outside for certain procedures and specialized tests.

It’s unlikely the regional hospitals will cut down on trips Outside, unless the new facilities end up with equipment and specialists not found in Whitehorse.

And if the regional hospitals end up serving as overflow for Whitehorse General Hospital, as happened in November when several Whitehorse patients were sent to Watson Lake, then the territory will foot the new cost of sending residents away to far-flung hospitals.

The new hospitals also fly in the face of some of the findings of the Yukon government’s health review, said Hanson. She points to suggestions to bolster home care for the elderly and allow nurse practitioners to perform a greater range of tasks.

“I’d rather design a system that’s resilient,” said Hanson.

A telephone survey is also being conducted that asks the same questions as the online poll. Hanson received a call several nights ago. She expects the results will be used by the government as proof the public supports the new hospitals.

The Yukon Party has long promised both communities new medical facilities. But the government doesn’t have enough money in its coffers to pay for the work.

Enter the Yukon Hospital Corporation, which got into the construction business last year at cabinet’s request. The hospital has obtained a $67-million bank loan to pay for the two new hospitals, expected to cost $25 million each, and a $17-million medical residence adjacent to Whitehorse General Hospital.

This borrowing shifts the debt off the government’s main books, at a cost: taxpayers will pay several million in interest payments over the next 20 years.

Watson Lake’s new hospital was derided by critics as a boondoggle even before the borrowing began. It’s being built inside a half-built shell that was intended to be a multi-level care facility for the elderly.

The project became derailed in the summer of 2008, when it became clear that Watson Lake’s existing cottage hospital was in such bad shape, it would cost less to build a new facility than to renovate the current building.

If the new hospitals are meant to please voters, they may not be having the desired effect.

Nurses in Watson Lake have protested the new hospital design, arguing that their community needs intensive programs aimed at helping alcoholics and drug addicts, rather than a 24-hour hospital.

And Dawsonites have howled at the hospital’s proposed downtown location, which may end up displacing the annual summer music festival.

Premier Dennis Fentie insists that new health facilities are needed to attract new residents to these communities. If you build it, in other words, they will come.

But hospitals may not be enough. It could be difficult to attract more doctors and nurses to staff Watson Lake Hospital when the community lacks a daycare, consultants note.

All this raises plenty of questions for opposition MLAs to ask representatives from the hospital corporation when they appear before the legislature tomorrow, starting at 3:30 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at