Cost overruns put political squeeze on McGill hospital

Nationalists already asking why we need a new 'English' hospital


Linguistic politics delayed the McGill University teaching-hospital project. And now linguistic politics threaten to kill it.
Of the two Montreal teaching hospital projects, McGill University's came first; it was proposed in 1993. In fact, it was supposed to have been completed by now, but was held up first by the political need to develop a matching project at the Universite de Montreal, then by delays in the latter.
While decontamination of the McGill site in the former Glen rail yard is under way, work on the U de M project has yet to begin, a year after the Charest government chose the site for it.
And thanks to the inflation of construction estimates resulting in part from the delays in the U de M project, it now looks as though the McGill hospital is less likely to be completed.
Again yesterday, Health Minister Philippe Couillard reiterated the Charest government's commitment to build both hospitals. And neither of the two opposition parties in the National Assembly is against that - yet.
But a turning point was reached this week when, aided by rising cost estimates, the idea of scrapping the McGill project worked its way from the fringes of the nationalist movement into the political mainstream at the Assembly.
The official opposition Parti Quebecois, whose former government approved the two projects, began to ask whether Quebec can still afford both. While PQ health critic Jean-Pierre Charbonneau emphasizes it's "too soon" for the party to withdraw its support before it knows how much they will cost, he also told me "the two hospitals are not sacred cows."
Charbonneau says he's concerned about the constantly rising cost estimates, which, according to a report this week, have reached at least $1.7 billion for the U de M hospital and $1.6 billion for McGill's.
Couillard conceded this week the hospitals will cost more than the $1.1 billion each that the government approved last year, of which it would provide $800 million each, with the remainder coming from the private sector and Ottawa. He promised to announce the latest official estimates soon.
And costs could be pushed even higher if the government follows through on its apparent intention to build the hospitals as public-private partnerships. The time required to negotiate the lengthy, detailed and complicated PPP contracts, under which private partners would finance and build the hospitals and operate some non-medical services, could delay construction further.
While Charbonneau says he's concerned about financial costs, other nationalists have been trying for a year to stir up opposition to the construction of a big new "English" hospital (in fact, there's no such thing in Quebec) on linguistic ground.
Until now, these nationalists haven't had any success. But they might be encouraged in their campaign for a single, francophone-controlled hospital, both by the PQ's new willingness to consider the question and by poll results published yesterday.
In the CROP-La Presse poll, conducted March 16-26, 76 per cent of Quebecers responded to rising cost estimates by saying they favoured construction of only a single, bilingual hospital, jointly operated by the U de M and McGill.
Even 65 per cent of anglophones were in favour. Still, this could easily develop into the language issue that Premier Jean Charest has so far managed to avoid. And given the ham-fistedness he has repeatedly demonstrated as premier, one shudders at the thought of him fumbling with a language issue.
If the separate McGill hospital is to be saved, it might be that the only one in Quebec with the necessary public credibility to do it is Couillard. He said this week that both new hospitals are necessary, not only to replace "obsolete" facilities that require "25 years of uninterrupted renovation," but also to maintain Montreal's "international leadership" in the medical field.
This could be the ultimate test of the natural political skills Couillard has already shown. If he can sell Quebecers on paying for a separate teaching hospital for McGill, then he should be premier.

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