Skip to main content
opinion

On the weekend, the McGill University Health Centre celebrated the inauguration of its "Glen site," a spanking new 500-bed hospital.

Normand Rinfret, president and chief executive of the MUHC, hailed the facility as a "shining icon for Montreal, for Quebec and for Canada." He also thanked those who envisaged, designed, planned and managed the project and carried out the construction – and he did so with a straight face.

As hospitals go, it's nice, especially compared with the decrepit, crumbling institutions it's replacing, but it's hardly iconic. It also comes with a whole of lot of baggage that can't be conveniently overlooked.

The MUHC saga is a shameful example of the worst of petty politics and spineless policy-making, a two-decade-long debacle featuring corruption, bribery, petty politics and incompetence on a scale rarely seen in Canada.

When the so-called "superhospital" – the merger of five of Montreal's six English-language hospitals – was first proposed in 1991, it was an administrative move, a bid to eliminate bureaucratic overlaps and create a virtual institution.

That quickly evolved into a plan to replace the city's crumbling, old health facilities with a centralized new hospital. The initial cost was $600-million.

Over the years, that soared fourfold to $2.355-billion, including $1.3-billion for the Glen site and another $1-billion to do renovations to facilities such as at Montreal General, and that's likely not the final cost.

To make matters worse, as costs rose, the scope of the project shrank.

Let's not forget either that the MUHC is only half the story. Montreal is also getting a French superhospital, the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), at a cost of just under $3-billion. It will feature one central downtown facility to replace three existing hospitals, massive renovations to Sainte-Justine children's hospital and a $470-million research institute. The CHUM is slated for completion in 2019.

So, what happened?

Politics and greed came to trump sound policy and common sense.

There were crass, partisan politics: The Liberals and the Parti Québécois each studied and restudied proposals, hoping to put their own stamp on the institutions and to financially benefit their backers.

There were medical politics: Shameless lobbying to retain buildings that should clearly be razed and ugly internecine fights about what specialties would practise where.

There were economic politics: contractors drooling at what could be one of the biggest construction projects since the 1976 Olympics, and corruption and bid rigging to match the bad old days of the Big O.

The province also embraced the PPP approach (private-public partnership), which ended up being a costly mistake. The public treasury will be paying private contractors to administer these facilities for another 30 years.

To date, seven people, including the former head of the MUHC Dr. Arthur Porter, and top executives at SNC-Lavalin, the engineering firm that won the bid to build the hospital, face criminal charges.

The real crime here though is the utter failure of public officials, from politicians to their minions, to protect the public interest.

There have been six premiers and 10 ministers of health (so far) from conception to construction of these hospitals and not one of them put an end to the spiral of nonsense.

The provincial Ministry of Health, for its part, completely failed in its mission. If a ministry cannot do something as fundamental and straightforward as build a hospital (or two), then does it really deserve to be entrusted with oversight of a $37.2-billion health and social-services budget?

Montreal's hospitals, some of which date back to the early 19th century, needed to be replaced and modernized. Patients deserve facilities that can deliver 21st-century care. Doing so should have been cost-effective.

So far, taxpayers have had to fork over about $5.4-billion for two hospitals and some renos to older ones, and some economists predict that, when the final tally is done, it will reach $8.6-billion.

That is, by any measure, too much money for too little in return.

The fundamental problem here is that, in all the "superhospital" rhetoric, patients and the public have always been an afterthought.

On the weekend, they got a little party, with music and balloons. To celebrate what exactly? Bread and circuses, and an utter lack of accountability?