JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Health System supervisor Kevin Smith says he’s not worried his report recommending the construction of a new hospital for south Niagara is sitting on a shelf gathering dust.
Instead, he said he believes recent comments by Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne are meant to encourage the he and the NHS to continue down the path started more than a year and a half ago.
“I believe there’s a very strong fiscal and clinical argument in favour of the second (new) site,” Smith told Bullet News during an interview Tuesday.
“I continue to be encouraged. The NHS has come a long way.”
During a conference call with local media last week, Wynne indicated the province has no “immediate” plans to build a new hospital for south Niagara.
Instead, Kathleen Wynne said the focus of her government will be on transforming the health-care system to ensure patients have access to the right care, in the right place at the right time.
“There’s a lot we need to do right now to transform the system,” Wynne told reporters from the Niagara-Hamilton area during the call, which was an opportunity for media to ask questions on a wide variety of topics.
Questions ranged from the future of horse-racing in Ontario and job creation to specific questions about a controversial recommendation by Niagara Health System supervisor Kevin Smith to build a new hospital in south Niagara to replace aging facilities in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Welland.
Wynne was also questioned about the NHS plan to consolidate maternal-child and mental health programs at the new St. Catharines hospital, which is set to open at the end of March. Moving maternal child to St. Catharines will allow the NHS to close maternity and pediatrics wards in Niagara Falls and Welland.
Wynne, who was sworn with her cabinet earlier this month, reappointed Deb Matthews, co-chair of her leadership campaign team, to the post of health minister. Matthews will also serve as deputy premier.
It was Matthews who in August 2011 put the NHS under provincial supervision, effectively dissolving the board of trustees.
Matthews then appointed Smith, president and chief executive officer of St. Joseph’s Health Care, to the post of supervisor.
Smith was tasked with the job of restoring public confidence in a hospital system mired in controversy of budget deficits, controversial restructuring plans, and bad relations with local politicians and the community. The NHS was also in the midst of C. difficle superbug outbreaks at its three largest hospitals during which more than 100 people died and a national spotlight was focused on the organization and its problems.
As part of his final report last fall to Matthews, Smith recommended building a new hospital for south Niagara as an alternative to proceeding with about $1 billion worth of repairs and upgrades to the existing facilities outside of St. Catharines.
Smith’s report, at least the portion dealing with a new hospital, has since languished on Matthews desk.
The Liberals, despite strong urging by Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor, have yet to act on the recommendation, or, in the alternative, reject it outright.
Part of the government’s transformation agenda will inevitable focus on provincewide discussions about what services need to be provided in a hospital setting and what services would be provided more appropriately in a different setting.
That could include publicly funded, privately operated clinics for services such as colonoscopies and cataract surgeries.
Wynne did not dismiss the idea of another new hospital for Niagara.
Instead, she said there will be a time for further “conversations” about capital funding for new hospitals down the road.
Those conversations, at least in the case of Niagara, have been ongoing for almost a year and took a whole new turn when last week Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak during a stop in Niagara Falls came out with his clearest statement yet in support of a new Niagara south hospital.
Hudak told Bullet News the recommendation by provincially appointed hospital supervisor Kevin Smith first unveiled last spring makes a lot of sense.
He credits Niagara Falls Progressive Conservative candidate Bart Maves for having the foresight to see the way ahead as much as five years ago.
“Bart Maves was way ahead of the curve on this one,” said Hudak.
“(It was) back in 2007 that he said that we should move in this direction and I agree.”
Hudak said he wants residents of south Niagara to have the best care possible and a new hospital is the right prescription.
“I want to make sure we have the most modern facilities with the best health-care treatment possible to give folks in south Niagara the top-notch health care they deserve,” said Hudak.
“And quite frankly, I think we should build new hospitals instead of holding on to old ones that were built 60, 70 years ago. That’s where health-care is going and Niagara deserves their share of that in south Niagara.”
During Tuesday’s interview, Smith said he believes the premier’s comments were aimed at saying she wants the NHS to continue with the work that’s before it now, including reconstituting its board and further refining the capital plan.
“What I heard her say… was get on with what’s right before you,” he said.
Smith said he is two week to a month away from announcing his recommendation for the location of two urgent care centres that would compliment the new south Niagara hospital.
He is also about a month away from naming the new NHS board – the one which will be tasked with taking over after he leaves later this year.
In tandem with this, the NHS will then be able to proceed with recruitment of a permanent president/CEO and a permanent chief of medical staff – two positions which have been filled on an interim basis since 2011 and 2009 respectively.
Meanwhile, the huge task of getting ready for the opening of the new St. Catharines health-care complex and Walker Family Cancer Centre at the end of March continues on schedule.
Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor, a strong supporter of Smith and his recommendation to build a new Niagara south hospital, said he remains confident the plan has the right one and the government will ultimately get behind it.
“I’m still positive,” Craitor told Bullet News on Friday.
Craitor said building a new hospital for south Niagara is a unique opportunity that should not be lost. It’s important for people, including the medical community, to get behind the proposal and show the government there’s a strong concensus about how to move forward in Niagara.
“It’s important,” said Craitor. “You only get one crack at it.”