Faced with a general election less than three months away and the sudden death of incumbent MLA Stan Hagen in a riding where health care is the No. 1 issue, the provincial government has caved into long-standing community demands for two new hospitals on northern Vancouver Island.
At a Vancouver Island Health Authority board meeting last week, officials unveiled a proposal to spend up to $600-million on an 80-bed facility to replace Campbell River's aging regional hospital and a 110-bed replacement for the Comox Valley's crumbling St. Joseph's facility. While details have yet to be worked out, the B.C. health ministry, which would fund 60 per cent of the project, has offered preliminary support for the plan, said the health authority's chief executive officer Howard Waldner.
"They are sufficiently comfortable with our proposal that we can take it into the community and discuss it more widely," Mr. Waldner said.
The move marks an about-face for the health authority, which in 2006 moved to replace the two hospitals with an expanded regional facility near Dove Creek Road, 15 kilometres north of Courtenay and 40 km south of Campbell River.
The Dove Creek plans, which proposed converting St. Joseph's to long-term residential care and turning the 50-year-old Campbell River hospital into a community clinic, sparked widespread opposition from physicians and community groups in both towns.
Rich Haugensen, a member of the grassroots advocacy group Citizens for Quality Health Care, said his group is cautiously optimistic about the health authority's new direction.
"I think they saw the light," said Mr. Haugensen, a Campbell River resident.
"They kept trying to push a very unpopular project that almost no one was in favour of. It was a ludicrous proposal."
In November 2007, Mr. Haugensen's group delivered a petition to the legislature signed by more than 19,000 area residents.
VIHA officials vowed grassroots opposition would have no effect on the project. But three months later, the Comox-Strathcona Regional Hospital District, a 40 per cent funding partner, withdrew its support for the Dove Creek proposal and forced VIHA back to the drawing board.
Mr. Haugensen said he's certain there are "politics involved" in the timing of the latest announcement.
"The hospital would have been an election issue up here, and there's still a lot of things to be sorted out so it still could be," he said.
Campbell River Mayor Charlie Cornfield said city hall is still trying to gauge public reaction to VIHA's new plans.
"We like the idea of the two-hospitals concept, but we need more answers on how well it will serve our community," said Mr. Cornfield, who also chairs the regional hospital district.
Meanwhile some physicians who fought the Dove Creek project have already rejected the latest plans.
Campbell River pathologist Aref Tabarsi said the 80 beds proposed for the new facility are insufficient and that more new beds should be earmarked for Campbell River.
In addition to 110 beds slated for the new Courtenay hospital, that community will benefit from 40-50 long-term care beds at the converted St. Joseph's facility, he said.
Mr. Waldner said the exact distribution of beds remains a matter for discussion, but pledged that neither community will see a reduction in current services under the new plan.
Health Minister George Abbott said while no funding decisions will be made until VIHA has submitted a detailed business plan, likely several months from now, the government supports the two-hospital model.