Corner Brook hospital advocate furious over broken PET scan promise
Opposition Liberals committed in 2014 to installing equipment in new hospital but now say there's no need
A Corner Brook health-care advocate is fuming that the Liberal government is backing away from a promise — made when the party was the Official Opposition — to provide state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar scanning equipment in the new hospital being built in the city.
Gerald Parsons, who co-chairs the Western Region Hospital Action Committee, says then opposition leader Dwight Ball promised a positron emission tomography scanner and a radiation therapy unit in 2014. But the Liberal government now says the equipment isn't needed.
"We were promised! We were promised a radiation unit and a PET scan, and they are reneging on their promise," Parsons told CBC News this week.
The hospital action committee started rallying for better health care on Newfoundland's west coast in 2013, demanding better access to cancer treatment so patients would not have to spend weeks travelling to St. John's.
Space but no equipment
Dwight Ball held several public meetings in 2014, declaring the Liberals had conducted their own study and determined Corner Brook and the west coast area should have a radiation unit and a PET scanner in the new hospital, scheduled to be completed in December 2023.
He promised both in writing to the hospital action committee in the fall of 2014 in a letter obtained by CBC News.
"I appreciate your request for me to once again reiterate our commitment to the installation of a radiation unit and positive emission tomography (PET) scanner in the new hospital to be built in Corner Brook, N.L.," states the letter, dated Sept. 29, 2014.
Tom Marshall, premier at the time, said space would be allocated in the new facility but never promised the actual equipment. Now in 2021, Health Minister John Haggie is saying the same thing.
"The new facility would have the structural ability to house a PET scanner because those are different than other pieces of equipment, but the actual scanner itself would only be supplied if there was an unmet demand that could not be filled by the machine in St. John's," he said.
There is a PET scanner in the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's that serves the province, but Parsons says if similar equipment is not installed in the new hospital in Corner Brook, then patients will never see one on the west coast.
"We are never going to get it. Plain and simple," Parsons said.
He said people shouldn't have to cross the island to use the equipment.
"It's crazy for people to have to travel," he said.
What is a PET scanner?
The large, multimillion-dollar PET scanner came in through the ceiling of the hospital in St. John's nearly four years ago.
Its state-of-the-art imaging technology checks for diseases in the body, making diagnosis and treatment of many conditions easier, especially for cancer patients.
The total cost of construction of the St. John's facility — including the new PET/CT scanner and all the other equipment — came to just over $46 million.
Haggie says the province doesn't need two of them.
"The Canadian Association of Radiologist recommend one PET scanner for every two million Canadians. Obviously that is way in excess of our population. Our current PET scanner — on the information I have, which is averaged for the past three years — is doing maybe five or six PET scans per day, which is well below its capacity," he said.
Parsons says the Liberals lied to his group. He found out there wouldn't be a PET scanner on the west coast only when he met with Premier Andrew Furey eight weeks ago in Corner Brook, after a tour of the new facility.
Space is everything at the new hospital in Corner Brook, with the new acute-care facility costing $100,000 a square foot, according to Haggie.
Parsons says during the meeting Furey asked him what was more important: a radiation unit — which the hospital will have — or a PET scanner?
Parsons says he told the premier his party promised both.
The Official Opposition calls it another broken promise by the Liberal government.
"We need to know why the decision was made to include a PET scanner in the first place and what happened to reverse the decision," said Stephenville-Port au Port MHA Tony Wakeham.
"If the Liberals can't trust other Liberals on health-care commitments, then how can the public trust them on health care?" he asked.
Wakeham says the Progressive Conservative Party would focus on fixing what he says is a broken medical travel assistance program, and ensure residents living outside St. John's can travel for medical appointments.
Parsons said his hospital action committee would like to hold a rally to voice their concerns about the lack of the promised PET scanner at the new hospital but he feels it's not safe to have a gathering right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he noted there will be a provincial election this year, and implied there could be consequences for the Liberals even without the rally.
"People will make their minds up when the election is called," he said.