09 MARCH 2015

David Coon calling on provincial government to commit to long-term hospital upgrade project


With the spacing crunch at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital causing non-essential surgical cancellations and forcing staff to treat patients in hallways and TV rooms, a local MLA is demanding government consider a massive upgrade.

Fredericton-South MLA David Coon who's also the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick, recently toured the local health-care facility, explaining that he wanted to see first-hand the challenges facing local medical professionals.

Before the provincial election in 2014 the Progressive Conservative government announced that it would commit to a $200-million renovation project for Fredericton's hospital, saying it would be carried out over multiple years until outdated surgical suites, the labour and delivery and intensive care units and medical records areas had been refreshed to a modern standard.

Over the past couple of years, the Horizon Health Network has invested several million dollars to complete preparatory work for the project, assessing exactly what needs to happen to bring the bustling facility, which first opened to patients in 1976, up to speed But when the now-governing Liberals brought forward the party's first capital budget at the end of 2014, there was no money earmarked for the Chalmers upgrade project for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau has said that due to the staggering demands for capital projects, some tough decisions had to be made.

While the Chalmers project hasn't fallen off the government's radar, he recently told reporters, it's just not possible to move ahead with the hospital improvements this year. Coon said he thinks the renovations should happen as quickly as possible.

"The time has long passed for a major upgrade to improve the space," he said.

"So it's essential that in the next capital budget we get back on track, that the money's forthcoming to do the design work for next year, and that a commitment is made to move forward thereafter to ensure the necessary expansion is built."

On his recent tour, Coon saw the problems posed by the facility's aging infrastructure and cramped quarters.

"I was quite struck by a number of things. The experience in the intensive care unit really stayed with me. I couldn't believe how crowded intensive care is, where the most urgent care takes place," he said.

"I mean it was jammed with staff, and with equipment, and the beds. It was really an eye-opener to me about how crowded it was in there. I can't imagine when there's an emergency situation, and people really have to start to scramble, how they manage with it being so clogged with people and equipment."

As the tour continued into the labour and delivery unit, he found himself transported back in time.

"I hadn't been there since the 1990s, when our children were born, and it hasn't changed one bit, except they'd changed the paint colour and they'd replaced an old tub that was in poor shape," he said, noting the Chalmers operates one of the busiest labour and delivery units in the province.

"They haven't got the space they need to provide the standard of care that is representative of today."

Coon said local health-care professionals also face significant challenges around completing non-urgent surgical procedures.

"The Chalmers has no place to do day surgeries. So that means surgeons and patients have to shuffle over to (the Oromocto Public Hospital) for day surgeries. That's just an example of how taxed the surgical theatres are (in Fredericton)." During a tour of the hospital's medical records area, he found it hard to believe one of New Brunswick's mostimportant health-care facilities could still be using such an outdated system.

"Most people may not think that's a high priority, but in the records department, the people who work in there are just cramped," he said.

"It's a really difficult work environment. It's unbelievable, really, the working conditions they're in."

Anyone who walks into the facility, he said, can sometimes find a massive crowd waiting for care.

"Even for people checking in, in the mornings, for blood tests, there's not enough room. People end up standing waiting their turn," he said.

Just last month, officials with the Horizon Health Network submitted a proposal to the Department of Health asking that the funds set aside for the creation of a new site for the Fredericton Downtown Health Clinic be shifted to the Chalmers upgrade project.

The Daily Gleaner requested an update on that proposal from the Department of Health. The newspaper is still waiting for that information.

Coon said that could be something to consider, but even if government publicly supported the Chalmers renovations that could help ease some of the concerns held by local health professionals

"That's well within their power, and they can do that. On the other hand what they should definitely do is make the clear commitment that the expansion and the upgrading at the Chalmers is a top priority, and they will be ensuring the Chalmers is back on track in the next capital budget and for every budget thereafter until the work is done," he said.

"It's a very straightforward commitment to make, and I don't know why they haven't made it yet."

Coon said it's not a major, immediate investment for the province, noting the project will unfold over many years.

"It's not something that's going to require $200 million to be spent in a single year. It will need to be spent over time and the amounts will increase as you get to the actual construction stage," he said.

"But at this stage of the game, it's still not a lot of money to do what needs to be done to prepare for a very needed and essential upgrade at the hospital."