Victoria General becomes urgent issue after years of 'smouldering'

A cleaning swat squad has stormed the buildings that make up the Victoria General Hospital, to try to restore public confidence in their sorry state, but is a good scrubbing what’s most urgently needed?

Nova Scotia's 14th health minister in 30 years, Leo Glavine, is one who has to tackle the problem head on

Flooding at the Victoria General Hospital site forced some patients to relocate in September 2015. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

A cleaning SWAT squad has stormed the buildings that make up the Victoria General Hospital site to try to restore public confidence in their sorry state, but is a good scrubbing what's most urgently needed?

Not according to former patients and their families.

After decades of only casual attention, and sporadic attempts by successive governments to develop a plan to replace the oldest of the buildings, it's those patients and families, not politicians, who have decided enough is enough.

An Edmonton woman's description this week of her "nightmare" stay at the VG sparked hundreds of comments and has been shared thousands of times on social media.

The Centennial Building will be 50 years old next year, the Victoria Building is two years shy of 70 but has aged more gracefully.

'What's smouldering doesn't matter compared to the conflagration'

But what will replace the two facilities hasn't moved beyond email discussion, planning meetings and artist conceptions.

That's not because no one cared, according to past ministers of health and senior department officials, but rather because other issues have always eclipsed peeling paint, dingy floors and torn curtains.

Ron Stewart was minister in the tumultuous era of John Savage's Liberal government. His failed attempt to reform the health system in short order fuelled demonstrations and heated debate.

The aging VG simply wasn't on his radar during his time between 1993 and 1996.

"Your priorities are set by what's burning at the moment," said Stewart. "What's smouldering doesn't matter compared to the conflagration." 

'No sense of urgency'

Progressive Conservative Jamie Muir took over the portfolio three years, and two ministers, after Stewart.

He recalled seeing "but not having to deal" with a report on the VG buildings.

"It was certainly on the list of buildings getting old, but there was no sense of urgency," he said.

And in the health minister's office, non-urgent items don't rate a second look. 

Seven years and four ministers after Muir, the VG did grab the attention of New Democrat Maureen MacDonald on her first day in charge of the health portfolio. A letter from the CEO of Capital Health laid out a master plan for capital construction.

MacDonald doesn't recall the plan in much detail but she remembers the the price tag vividly — $1.3 billion.

"You don't forget a number that big."

She wasn't sure how long the request had been in the department, but she said she was discouraged from meeting with staff over it because they hadn't done any analysis.

Near the top of to-do list

By the end of her two years as minister, in December 2011, she held a news conference to announce the "first step to upgrade Capital Health's aging infrastructure."

It's unclear how many further steps have been taken in the last four years to bring that plan closer to reality.

In last week's capital plan for 2016-17, the current Liberal government pledged $1.5 million for more planning. 

Sending in cleaners with scrub brushes and disinfectants is a tangible response to complaints about mysterious substances smeared across night tables and bed frames, but it's clear patients and their families want more.

And that means the VG, which has long languished at the bottom of governments' to-do lists, is now near the top.

And that makes it the fire to be extinguished by Nova Scotia's 14th health minister in 30 years, Leo Glavine.

About the Author

Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.


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