Warning of a looming "social deficit" in health care, Alberta Premier Alison Redford pledged to build a leading-edge cancer-care facility in fast-growing Calgary at a cost of up to $1.3-billion despite an escalating fiscal deficit.
Ms. Redford made the announcement Friday at Foothills Medical Centre where the new facility will be erected in a parking lot in phases starting in 2015 to replace the aging and overcapacity Tom Baker Cancer Centre, which stands nearby.
The concept has bounced around for years, and through successive Progressive Conservative premiers, as money has been dribbled piecemeal into various upgrades. But it is going ahead now despite a provincial deficit that could reach $4-billion for 2012-13, and a budget to be released next week that is expected to be gloomy amid dramatically falling energy revenue.
The project has no substantial funding in place – although the Alberta Cancer Foundation has vowed to raise $200-million – but Ms. Redford insisted that the province can afford to build.
"It's exactly the right time for the province to be taking on something like this," Ms. Redford told reporters. "We were elected to build Alberta. Making sure that we have quality health care, and the infrastructure that's in place to do that, is critical. We can't get behind."
About 100,000 people are predicted to move to Alberta each year, while almost 16,400 people are diagnosed with cancer and another 5,500 die from it annually, according to the provincial statistics.
Toronto already has a head-start in the race to build the next great cancer centre. The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, which raises money for the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, one of the world's largest comprehensive cancer-treatment facilities, is in the midst of its own $1-billion fundraising campaign for expansion and recruitment of top oncologists.
Dr. Paul Grundy, senior medical director of cancer care with Alberta Health Services, envisioned the Calgary centre as "one-stop shopping" for everything from cancer diagnosis, to treatment to research that could also become a world-leader.
Cancer-care fundraiser Patrick Daniel, the former chief executive officer of pipeline giant Enbridge Inc., wasn't sure the government would have the guts to go ahead with it.
"As recently as a few days ago I was predicting that it would not happen," he told those assembled for the announcement. "I have been in positions like the one the Premier is in – very, very tough budget positions – and to make the decision and a commitment like this for the future in light of the current challenges is an overwhelmingly positive decision."
In 2010, the province committed $181-million toward a new ambulatory care facility and it has since kicked in another $46-million to work up the design and technical details.
Ms. Redford said she would look to private-public partnerships and the capital markets for financing, while Health Minister Fred Horne said the March 7 budget could include "some additional funding."
The government said the first phase of building will be done by 2017.
Heather Forsyth, who is the health critic for the Official Opposition Wildrose Party, applauded the initiative, but was skeptical of where the money will come from – as well as the timing of the announcement just days before a tough budget.
"Once again there goes to the government making promises without the dollars behind them," she said, "I hope they are true to their word."