Bouchard has nerve to comment on health matters


December 17, 2004 Friday
Given their horrendous record, there are two men who should refrain from commenting, let alone giving advice on any issue that relates to Quebec's health-care system: Jean Rochon and Lucien Bouchard.
Yet, in yesterday's La Presse, Bouchard penned a long, verbose opinion piece on the controversial choice of location for the future French-language superhospital.
Many could be forgiven for thinking a more appropriate topic for the former premier would have been an apology for the motion of blame he voted on Dec. 14, 2000, against what he alleged were Yves Michaud's "unacceptable remarks" about cultural communities. But health care it was.
Bouchard joined the lobby headed by Universite de Montreal rector Robert Lacroix, and aided by some powerful business men such as Power Corp. founder Paul Desmarais, that supports the Outremont-CP Rail yard location over St. Luc hospital in downtown Montreal.
Lacroix wants a health and science "technopolis" that would merge the U de M's medical faculties with a new hospital. The price tag is heavy: an estimated $1.7 billion before inflation and minus the predictable cost overruns in such megaprojects.
The less gargantuan and onerous St. Luc location should be excluded, Bouchard contends, because it wouldn't be prestigious enough and would have too many floors and not enough trees around it.
Since he abhors the subject, he failed to mention the underlying language issue. This part of Outremont is majority nonfranco-phone and it is already served by two anglophone hospitals, while St. Luc would be in a larger area than could serve a majority of French-speaking patients.
Bouchard also denounced the "malevolent allusions to clandestine lobbying" and defended the "selfless efforts" of Desmarais, who negotiated the sale of the CP rail yard to the U de M.
But the facts are the facts. It was thanks to a series of investigative pieces in Le Devoir that Lacroix's backroom lobbying was finally exposed. It was so clandestine even the CHUM board hadn't been informed of it when Lacroix started lobbying the Charest government.
Fearing the government will opt for the St. Luc site, Bouchard ironically is now asking for more "transparency and information" regarding the CHUM. When he was premier, he never did practise these two virtues whether on the CHUM or a host of other issues.
As for Desmarais's role, it remains troubling on two counts. First, he negotiated with CP the sale of its rail yard without any mandate from the government or the CHUM board. Last time Quebecers looked, Desmarais, though he might be powerful, was neither health minister nor premier.
Second, it's impossible to escape the impression that La Presse, a paper he owns, has been commandeered in the lobby campaign for the Outremont site through a number of favourable articles, editorials and columns. Bouchard's op-ed piece - also reported on the front page - is the latest attempt to try to sway the government's choice.
La Presse has the freedom to defend what it wants, but Bouchard or anyone else shouldn't take offence such relentless campaigning in a paper owned by a man who belongs to Lacroix's lobby raises more than a few eyebrows. Especially considering the opposition to the Outremont site keeps mounting among the public as well as community and health-care groups.
If the cruel truth be told, Quebecers might have been able to afford Lacroix's grandiose project if Bouchard's own zero-deficit follies hadn't crippled our health-care system. Bouchard failed to invest to meet two crying needs: more doctors and nurses and better equipment. Those should be the priority.
If the Quebec media could get over the strange fascination they have for Bouchard, they would remember his policies created what's bringing our public system down: a dramatic shortage of doctors and nurses as well as depleted hospitals that were kept from getting the latest technology to provide better care.
To get his zero-deficit budget, Bouchard ousted close to 20,000 health-care workers of all stripes with hefty premature retirement packages. To save more, he limited admissions to medical schools. He slashed across the system, closed 2,800 hospital beds and created a monster called "virage ambulatoire." All this, he said with a straight face, was to "save" our system.
The medical staff left is dangerously overworked. Cuts in cleaning budgets in hospitals facilitated the spread of C. difficile. This fall, on CKAC, Health Minister Philippe Couillard admitted such cuts had cost lives. Given our situation, a glitzy technopolis is not what the doctor ordered.
If Couillard announces the CHUM location before Christmas, chances are it will be St. Luc. If it is, Bouchard's sortie will go down as another one of his profound misjudgments on the health-care needs of Quebecers.
The upside is he's no longer in a position to turn them into policies.

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