Nfld. & Labrador

John Haggie said N.L. didn't need another PET scanner. As election looms, Liberals pledge $2M for another one

At a hastily called media conference Thursday afternoon, Health Minister John Haggie, joined by Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne, said the issue has prompted "a lot of concern" and "a lack of clarity." That didn't appear to be the case when he spoke to CBC last week and indicated the machine in St. John's could easily handle more capacity.
Health Minister John Haggie and Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne insist the announcement of $2 million for the potential future purchase of a PET scanner is not politically motivated. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador livestream)

A state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar piece of scanning equipment has become a political hot potato in the last week — but the origins of it go back to 2014 — and the latest development comes with election speculation in overdrive.  

At a hastily called media conference Thursday afternoon, Health Minister John Haggie and Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne said the Liberals would put $2 million in trust with the Western Regional Hospital Foundation toward the purchase of the PET scanner, when health-care professionals — specifically, cancer-care doctors — say it's needed. 

Haggie made more than a half-dozen references at the news conference that the air needed to be cleared on this issue, and laid some of the blame for that on the "mainstream media."

That's despite Haggie saying, in an interview for a CBC story less than a week ago, that the PET scanner in St. John's is doing only a handful of scans a day and has the capacity to do much more.

"The issue around the PET scanner has caused a lot of concern and there is certainly a lack of clarity around it," Haggie said Thursday. 

"Because of the uncertainties that have been generated, mainly out in social media and some of the mainstream media, … I think there is a need for us as a government, as a department, to inject some clarity and to put back some trust."

There is so much uncertainty, stressed Haggie, that the provincial government is doing something it hasn't done before: put money in trust for future medical equipment. 

"This is a gesture to restore the trust and the confidence of the people on the west coast," he said.

A PET — positron emission tomography — scanner checks for diseases in the body, making diagnosis and treatment of many conditions easier, especially for cancer patients.

The $2 million would represent a fraction of what the equipment and necessary infrastructure would cost. 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.

The multimillion-dollar positron emission tomopgraphy — or PET scan — is located at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's. Haggie says five to six scans are performed daily. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Byrne, who is also the minister of immigration, skills and labour, said the money can be held in trust so when the new Corner Brook hospital is built and has the capacity for the equipment, it can — if recommended by cancer-care doctors. 

"I believe this is a very, very strong, wise, sensible, patient-driven approach that puts the decision-making into the hands of those we trust — the hospital foundation and the community members that make it, the cancer doctors who would never compromise patient safety," he said.

Broken Liberal promise in 2014: citizens' action committee

Gerald Parsons, who co-chairs the Western Region Hospital Action Committee, raised the issue last week, noting Dwight Ball — then leader of the Liberals, who were the Official Opposition at the time — promised the PET scanner during the 2014 election campaign, in writing. 

He accused the Liberals of lying to his group, after he learned just eight weeks ago that there wouldn't be a PET scanner on the west coast when he met with Premier Andrew Furey during a tour of the new facility.

"We were promised! We were promised a radiation unit and a PET scan, and they are reneging on their promise," Parsons told CBC News a week ago. 

Gerald Parsons is the co-chair of a hospital action committee in Corner Brook that advocates for better health-care services for people on the west coast of Newfoundland. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

At the time, Haggie also spoke to CBC News on the issue, and said the province didn't necessarily need two of the highly advanced machines. 

"The Canadian Association of Radiologists 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 at the time. 

A few days after that, members of the Western Region Hospital Action Committee held a protest in Corner Brook. 

Byrne, Haggie grilled on timing of multimillion-dollar announcement

Thursday's announcement regarding the PET scanner comes on the same day the Liberal government announced money for several projects, running the gamut from water and wastewater infrastructure to tourism marketing help for businesses. The provincial government issued 17 press releases on Thursday — the most in a single day in at least two years — with the majority being about new funding or initiatives by the provincial government.

Election speculation is rampant, with some political insiders eyeing an election call as early as Friday morning. 

Haggie and Byrne insisted there is no political motivation. 

"So this is in no way connected to the fact that you might be going to the polls soon?" asked NTV's Michael Connors. 

"Absolutely not," said Byrne, who explained that there was a lot of politics involved in the decision and path to getting the new hospital built and it was the Liberals who made it happen. 

The new acute care hospital in Corner Brook should be completed by December 2023. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

There is no clear timeline on when a decision will be made to purchase a PET scanner. 

"It's not 10 years," said Haggie, noting getting accreditation for the St. John's cyclotron took from 2019 until mid-2019.

"Because the one thing I know, is If I give you a date, for absolute certain, I know it will be wrong."

Earlier in the day, before the media conference, the PCs issued a media release, stating they would "follow through where the Liberals failed and deliver a PET scanner to the Corner Brook Regional Hospital" and also accused the Liberals of breaking a promise. 

PC finance critic Tony Wakeham says he's skeptical about several recent funding announcements by the governing Liberals. (Radio-Canada)

Opposition finance critic Tony Wakeham told CBC says his skepticism abounds related to the many recent Liberal announcements. 

"I'm hearing that tomorrow, that as early as tomorrow, the people, we will be heading to the polls," he said. 

"It's amazing how they can come out on one day and announce all this money and then go to the polls without telling people what the plan is."

He referred to the premier's economic recovery team, headed by Moya Greene, which is due to release an interim report by the end of February.

"They got these big reports they want to put forward, Moya Greene, and they're afraid to show them to the people of the province."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Stephanie Kinsella and Colleen Connors

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