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Local gays dread hospital’s potential move

Has St Paul's started packing?

'A HUGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE COULD BE DISRUPTED'. If Providence closes St Paul's and splits up its HIV s Credit: Robin Perelle photo

A controversial plan that could close St Paul’s Hospital has thrown HIV/AIDS groups and the local business community into a turmoil, while leaving gay seniors and a prominent disabilities group wondering why they’ve been left out of the loop.

Providence Health Care-the largest Catholic health organization in Canada-will ask the BC Government within a few months to consider closing the West End hospital and relocating its services to a proposed new hospital on the east side.

Vancouver city planner Tom Phipps says Providence hopes to relocate acute care, teaching and research functions to an east False Creek property purchased last year. While exploratory talks have begun, Phipps says planning the new facility won’t begin until late spring.

Providence spokesman Shaf Hussain insists nothing has been decided yet. He blames the media for alarming the community. “We’re getting calls about the hospital being relocated when we’re still only reviewing our options,” Hussain told Xtra West in a telephone interview.

Hussain says Providence is building two business cases, both calling for new hospital facilities.

The first case involves building new facilities at the current site; the second would relocate St Paul’s to east False Creek, while retaining some specialized services at the Burrard St site. Later this spring, Providence will forward the two options to the BC Treasury Board. It has been working on the options since last year.

The hospital’s future will be decided by government, not Providence, Hussain emphasizes. The BC government funds hospital costs and will decide whether St Paul’s is rebuilt or its services relocated. “We’re not recommending either direction.”

But the lucrative prospect of selling two hectares of highly coveted West End real estate on which St Paul’s is situated-together with last year’s purchase of the 8.9 hectare east side property-have led to a widely-held view that Providence is pushing the relocation option.

“I don’t think we’ll get a straight answer out of them [Providence] until a bulldozer hits the hospital,” says Jim Deva, a long-time West End community activist and co-owner of Little Sister’s bookstore. “St Paul’s is the heart and soul of downtown Vancouver and I think they have every intention of trying to move it.”

Deva says talk of relocating acute and research functions while leaving behind health clinics and the Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS is an outrage. “They would take away the guts of the services, leaving patients abandoned among towers of condominiums.”

Providence is creating divisions by making it an east side versus West End issue, he notes. “East side hospital plans shouldn’t mean closing our hospital. This is all about the real estate value of the St Paul’s land, nothing more and nothing less.”

Morgan Dyer of Colliers International says the St Paul’s property is highly prized by Vancouver developers, noting, “The allowable density is so huge you could build a metropolis.”

Meanwhile, Providence has stepped up consultation with community representatives after stinging public criticism last summer that it was holding secret talks with the BC government to close St Paul’s. Through the fall, Providence met with some 40 groups, including The West End Seniors’ Network, AIDS Vancouver, BC Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA), Vancouver HIV/AIDS Care Coordinating Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association.

“We’ve received varied feedback,” says Hussain, noting that Providence will meet with any interested local group or organization. “There is a lot of excitement about a brand new acute care facility but there are concerns about St Paul’s moving, including issues around accessibility.”

“There would be so much lost if we moved from here,” says Paul Lewand, chair of the 4,000-member BCPWA. “The lives of a huge number of people could be disrupted.”

But he adds, “If a brand new facility is built keeping intact crucial HIV services maybe it would be worth all the turmoil. Our biggest worry is that the Centre of Excellence will be split up.

“This is huge for us,” he continues, “and we’re left with lots of confusion.”

Lewand says Providence is heavily invested in the relocation option. “They’ve put a lot of resources into something they are only investigating.”

“A cynic might say a decision has already been made, but I didn’t sense that,” says Chris Tyrell, co-chair of the Vancouver HIV/AIDS Care Coordinating Committee, an umbrella group representing 16 HIV/AIDS groups.

Tyrell says a recent presentation by a delegation of 20 Providence officials was polished and respectful, encouraging feedback and questions. But, he says, anxieties were not eased. “Lots of people have had intense emotional experiences in that building,” he notes.

Tyrell says Providence didn’t provide a medical case for the proposed relocation. “They were all administrators, no doctors.”

He says the leadership of the HIV/AIDS community is torn by big picture regional and provincial interests. “It’s hard to know what’s right. We were invited to continue the dialogue, but how we are going to follow up isn’t clear yet.”

Providence is convinced relocation could have huge payoffs. Noted Providence CEO and President Carl Roy in a published report, “If this option is pursued a new state-of-the-art facility would strengthen and renew Providence’s role as a leading health-care provider with a major academic and research mandate. It would enhance community-based care of the city’s least fortunate and benefit the diverse communities of Vancouver’s East Side.”

Meanwhile, two important stakeholders have yet to be informed of any change in plan.

“We have no information,” says Mei Ng, associate executive director of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities. “No one from our staff or board has any knowledge of this issue.”

Neither has The Centre’s Generations Project, and Chris Morrissey says she is concerned for gay seniors. “They [Providence] are making a decision for their organization and we have not been informed or included in any consultation.”

The future of St Paul’s is hotly debated politically. Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt and City Councillor Tim Stevenson both want hospital services retained at the St Paul’s site.

Mayencourt questions the logic of the relocation plan, noting last August that 80,000 people live within 10 blocks of the hospital and 50,000 work in the West End and downtown. “Why would [Providence] want to move that facility to False Creek flats where there’s only 12,000 residing?” He wasn’t available to comment on his promise to hold community consultations on the issue last September.

Stevenson, who recently won the NDP Vancouver-Burrard nomination pitting him in a rematch against Mayencourt for the downtown seat in the upcoming election, blames the Liberal government for the turmoil caused by relocation speculation.

“Health care is ultimately the government’s responsibility,” he points out. He sees the potential for “fabulous new health facilities” on both the east side property and at the current Burrard St site, suggesting that the Centre for Excellence, senior facilities and a heart centre should be included in a redeveloped St Paul’s.

Providence has advised West End community groups that upgrading St Paul’s could take almost four times longer than building at the new site because of complications related to seismic standands, technology challenges and problems with infection control.

Hussain said Providence will hold public consultations on the detailed plan after the decision is reached on which site option to pursue. The two options will be forwarded to the Treasury Board this spring and an announcement is expected this summer.