BC health minister George Abbott made no promises about the fate of St Paul’s Hospital after meeting with members of the Save St Paul’s Coalition, Mar 31.
“I think there is considerable planning that remains to be done-and there’s considerable public consultation that remains to be done-before we would form conclusions about what will happen in the future at St Paul’s,” he told Xtra West after the meeting.
“I’m sure you’d like me to be more definitive but I think there’s a good deal of planning work that needs to be done before we are going to be able to make a definitive, declaratory statement about what should be in any particular location,” Abbott continued.
St Paul’s has been the subject of controversy since 2003-ever since word surfaced that its owner, Providence Health Care, may want to close the West End hospital and replace it with a new one on the False Creek Flats east of Main St.
Asked if there will indeed be a public consultation on the hospital’s future, Abbott said yes. “It is my expectation that there will be continued and accelerated public consultation.”
But, he said, it’s not up to him to arrange it.
“Providence will determine where and when. But it would be my expectation on a project of this magnitude that there will be considerable public consultation,” Abbott repeated.
Last July, Providence’s chief architect told Xtra West that it’s the health ministry that will take the lead in organizing consultations; not Providence. Though Providence would play an active role in the process, Neil MacConnell noted.
Members of the Save St Paul’s Coalition and other community groups have repeatedly expressed frustration with the lack of public consultation thus far. The process has been very closed, says coalition chair Aaron Jasper, stressing the need to make it “more open and inclusive of the public.”
Abbott said Providence has already held some “low-key” consultations and he expects “that will continue over the months ahead.”
“I think we’re months away from any completion of the planning portion of this,” Abbott said, when asked for a decision-making timeline. “However, that depends on how quickly the pieces here come together and I won’t form any conclusions about that until I see the planning work.”
Discussions have already begun between Providence and BC’s health ministry, Abbott acknowledged. “Those discussions are, in my estimation, some considerable distance from conclusion, but the discussions are under way.”
Asked if Providence has already presented a specific plan for approval, Abbott hedged. “Providence has presented some ideas and concepts,” he said.
“Again, we are some distance from a well-defined and completed plan,” he reiterated.
Abbott described his meeting with the Save St Paul’s Coalition as “very positive and constructive.”
Members of the coalition echoed the sentiment. “I thought it went really well,” Jasper told Xtra West a few hours later. “We didn’t expect that the minister would say, ‘Oh yeah, sure, the hospital will stay,’ with a stamp of approval.”
But “we felt he was very receptive to our concerns,” Jasper continued, noting that Abbott even offered to meet with the coalition again. “We took that as a very positive development.”
At the meeting, the coalition introduced itself and listed all the community groups it represents, raised its concerns about the lack of public consultation, and outlined all the costs of closing the current site-from the communities who rely on its services in the West End, including the HIV-positive community, to the inaccessibility of the new site.
Asked if Abbott gave the group any indication of the hospital’s fate, Jasper said no. But he seemed to make a commitment to public consultation, Jasper said, explaining that the minister agreed that consultation is important but didn’t provide any specifics.
It was only the first meeting, Jasper pointed out. “We’ve scored a minor victory here.”
Alan Herbert is not convinced. Herbert was co-chair of the coalition until a few days before the meeting with the minister, when he resigned in frustration.
After hearing about the meeting, Herbert says he thinks the coalition “was politely dismissed.”
More planning, more consultation, future planning-these are all “buzz words,” he says.
Herbert is not surprised the meeting didn’t yield more concrete commitments from the minister. He accuses Jasper of “mismanaging” the coalition and says he fully expected the meeting to be “squandered.”
Jasper lacks the credentials to adequately represent the coalition, let alone the needs of the HIV/AIDS and gay communities served by St Paul’s, Herbert charges. Herbert wanted to be part of the delegation that met with the minister, but the coalition voted to send other representatives instead.
Jasper disputes Herbert’s charges. “I honestly think the community is very well represented in our coalition,” he says.
The coalition’s remaining gay members, Stephen McManus, Kevin O’Neil and Rick Jonah, all agree with Jasper. They don’t think the coalition is mismanaged or unrepresentative.
“I am a member of the HIV /AIDS community,” says Jonah. “If I thought for a minute these issues were not going to be addressed, I’d be the one complaining. But they are being addressed.”
“We have a voice on the committee,” says McManus. “I don’t know what’s really going on there between Aaron and Alan. They’re both really strong personalities,” he adds.
Having met with the minister, Jasper says the coalition now needs to figure out its next step. “The sense I got from George Abbott is that we’re not in any pressing danger,” he says. “I think we have more time than we thought we had.”
“That’s exactly what the minister wanted him to think,” counters Herbert. “Go away and come back when it’s too late.”
The coalition should have demanded a guarantee that the provincial government consult the public before it grants any approval on the future of St Paul’s, Herbert says.