Patients come second in CHUM vision


November 26, 2004 Friday
Since its first mention in 1995, the building of a French-language superhospital in Montreal, now due for 2010, has been a political pawn in the hands of indecisive Parti Quebecois and Liberal governments.
They spent $30 million on useless studies. This year, the government seemed to want to move the project from its original site in Rosemont to the downtown area surrounding St. Luc Hospital.
Today, it looks as if this project has also become a pawn in the hands of the Universite de Montreal and a group of influential businessmen who want to move it elsewhere.
Since the summer, Robert Lacroix, U de M rector, has been lobbying Jean Charest's government to build the CHUM superhospital in Outremont. This would allow the U de M to expand its facilities in the huge area surrounding a Canadian Pacific Railway marshalling yard that would need to be moved and decontaminated.
The lobbying worked. An interdepartmental committee was created to study the project and former Liberal premier and close Charest adviser, Daniel Johnson, was asked to write a quick report.
The influential Paul Desmarais from Power Corp. is also helping to negotiate with CP to hasten approval of the project.
Even federal Transport Minister Jean Lapierre, who happens to be the MP for Outremont and represents a government that has no business sticking its nose into this, wants to put up $25 million of federal money to help pay for the move of CP's tracks - something he publicized in a leaflet to constituents.
We seem to be dealing with some serious backroom manoeuvrings by a powerful network of politicians and businessmen who stand behind the U de M. All the while, we hear no doctors, no nurses, no patients talking about this project, and no real public debate.
Lacroix finally came out with his grandiose "vision," calling it a "project of society," a "technological centre of knowledge and health" that would become the Silicon Valley of health care. This would cost more than $1 billion - a conservative estimate by any account - to which must be added the other, more or less billion-dollar McGill University Health Centre superhospital.
This is what taxpayers will pay, if not more, in a city where health-care and university training for medicine are divided along language lines.
The stakes are high and the money could be big. Desmarais's role is no coincidence. Behind this medical "vision" lies a business, profit-making vision as well.
The primary vocation of this medical hub doesn't appear to be dispensing care, but the extension of U de M, attraction of research money, and profits for the pharmaceutical industry, big-box pharmacies and private clinics such as the pay-as-you-enter clinic on Beaumont St., near the medical hub. Here, health care becomes a profitable industry, not a public service.
This vision of health care as an industry seems to run in the Desmarais family. Helene Desmarais, married to Paul Desmarais Jr., who presides over a number of business and university boards, was commissioned by Montreal in 1997 to produce a report on the future of health care in the city. It suggested that downtown Montreal become an international centre of the health-care industry.
Desmarais's involvement in the U de M project also stems from his long-time relationship with the university. His family has been very generous to it over the years. Lacroix and Paul Desmarais Jr. also sit together on the board of the Trudeau Foundation that hands out study bursaries.
A number of contractors also would profit from building the new streets for this project. No doubt many a luxurious condo could be built around this project as well.
Hence a few questions. Where is patient care is all of this? Who is debating what matters: How to provide better and more public health care? Where is the "hospital" component in this grandiose project? Come to think of it, where is the health minister on this file?
Where does Philippe Couillard stand? Does he have any control over this decision, or will Daniel Johnson, Lacroix and Desmarais play the real health ministers? Who stands to benefit from this project: patients or the U de M and business? And where business and health care mix, growing privatization can't be too far behind.
Even the MUHC has brought in a new director from the U.S. who is known for his talents in outsourcing - something the Charest government wants to encourage.
Isn't it time to take the debate on the CHUM hospital out of the hands of powerful lobbyists and have a full public debate?

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