Hospital funding commitment sought

Doctors favour an expansion to overcome the shortage of space at Penticton Regional Hospital.

Doctors favour a major expansion to overcome the shortage of space at Penticton Regional Hospital, but their plea for help last week failed to produce a funding commitment from the province.

About 25 medical professionals turned out a week ago Wednesday for a luncheon hosted by the local B.C. Liberal riding association that featured Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid as the guest speaker. The minister was in the city for a tour of the hospital, which is slated for an as-yet unfunded $300-million expansion to improve outpatient services.

Summerland would be affected by the expansion because Penticton hospital is both the nearest hospital and the regional hospital.

“We are here as community physicians telling you and representing to you that it’s overdue,” said Dr. Susan Tebbutt, a pathologist who chairs the hospital’s medical advisory committee and was among a handful of doctors who pitched the project to the minister.

She said 14 outpatient beds were added to PRH in 1989, but that space is now used to handle overflow from the emergency room, so outpatient services are simply offered wherever there’s room.

Dr. Brad Raison said the proposed addition of a four-storey ambulatory care tower to bolster outpatient services would complement what’s offered at hospitals in larger centres.

“We’re never going to be able to compete with the kind of care they can give. What we can do is state-of-the-art diagnostics and ambulatory care services,” said Raison, an ER physician.

The plan shouldn’t require more in-patient beds or staff, he added, although there will be increased expenses, such as heating and cleaning costs, that come with the expansion.

It will also make life easier for patients, said Dr. Sarah Broder, a respirologist and past chief of staff at the hospital.

Broder said most of her patients are seniors, half of whom require supplemental oxygen that’s delivered from a tank they tow around with them. She urged the health minister to consider those people while visiting the facility.

“I’d really like you to imagine pulling five or 10 pounds behind you and (note) how far you have to walk for four standard tests that would be done,” Broder told MacDiarmid.

“And if this ambulatory care facility is built, what will happen is (patients) will walk in one door, go to one spot and be able to get everything that they require in one place,” Broder continued.

“It is efficient, it is appropriate and it is what our community really needs.”

MacDiarmid said after her tour of PRH that she found the local doctors’ pitches “compelling.” But she said it would be “very unfair” to provide a date when the government will decide on funding the expansion because outside forces, like an urgent need at another facility, could impact the decision.

“We will work on it. It’s clearly a priority, and not just for Penticton. Provincially, we understand this is something we need to get to,” she said.

MacDiarmid, a former family doctor, also noted a handful of other B.C. hospitals are about the same age as PRH, which opened in 1951, and also in need of upgrades.

“But I’m certainly going to go back and have a really careful look at all the capital needs. I understand that this one’s big, and the only thing is: How many other ones are as big or bigger?” she said.

The South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation has already committed to fundraising $20 million for the expansion, while the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional Hospital District has pledged to come up with another $120 million. That leaves a $160-million funding gap for the province to fill. Summerland Mayor Janice Perrino is the executive director of the medical foundation and chairman of the regional hospital district.

The four-storey ambulatory care tower would feature a medical school, surgical suites, outpatient clinics and an oncology centre. The plan also calls for a new five-storey parkade to go up beside the tower.

The hospital expansion is one of two major projects in the South Okanagan that remain in limbo pending funding decisions from the provincial government, and the area’s representatives  in Victoria have asked their local counterparts for continued patience.

Liberal MLAs Bill Barisoff and John Slater offered little in the way of new information on the hospital expansion in Penticton and the new jail at Oliver during their appearance at this month’s board meeting of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.

RDOS directors were told the proposed $300-million expansion of Penticton Regional Hospital is still awaiting a decision from the Treasury Board. The RDOS meeting was held prior to the visit of Health Minister MacDiarmid to Penticton.

“I think it’s an indication that she knows the priority of it, she knows our priorities of it. I think we’ve got lots of things happening in the South Okanagan that lend itself to the need,” said Barisoff, the MLA for Penticton.

Barisoff added that he and Slater have worked hard to ensure the two previous health ministers also knew the importance of PRH expansion. But despite the two MLA’s efforts and the project’s spot atop Interior Health’s wish list, the last round of regional hospital funding went to Kamloops in July.

Perrino told the MLAs that the area is due for some capital dollars. According to figures she compiled, over the past decade, the North Okanagan has received capital funding for health care totalling about $92 per person, the Central Okanagan has received $108 and the South Okanagan $22. Vernon and Kelowna received significant hospital upgrades, she noted, as should Penticton.

“It’s about fairness,” said Perrino, who has already lined up $140 million locally for PRH expansion and is seeking the additional $160 million from Victoria.