John Rustad, local Liberal MLA, is working on adjusting the funding requirements for local hospitals.
Rustad says he has been talking to and negotiating with the provincial ministers of both health and finance to work towards adjusting the funding formula for this area, and specifically pushing for funding for the proposed new Burns Lake hospital.
Normally, local health districts must contribute 40 per cent of the cost of new projects, which would lead to large increases in area taxes because this is a very low population tax base and a low industrial tax base as well.
“Which, in my opinion, is unfair for the people in the area,” said Rustad.
The area would have three hospitals which may need significant work or even replacement within the next ten years, which are very large capital projects.
The Burns Lake Hospital is already slated to be replaced, but the Fort St. James hospital is also on the list for replacement. The Vanderhoof hospital, while well-maintained and a good building, Rustad says because it is from the same era, it won’t be very long before they need to look at upgrading or even replacing that facility.
Part of the issue is also that about 25 per cent of the area population is First Nations living on federal reserves, which means that while these people might use the hospital facilities, they don’t pay property taxes, so that burden is shifted onto the rest of the population who does.
This isn’t as big of an issue in areas with larger populations to absorb this cost, but in the low population area of the northwest, it becomes a problem.
Historically, Rustad says the province has gone to the federal level to ask for more funds in these situations, but in the 1990’s the federal government began paying a “bundled” amount of money towards the province to deal with health care costs for First Nations for capital and operating expenses.
While Rustad says this doesn’t prevent the province from still asking for additional funds, he thinks it also strengthens the argument for the regional health district not having to pay the full 40 per cent.
While Rustad says he has been working on the Burns Lake hospital funding for two years and was close to an agreement, the change in leadership and “stand pat” budget mean there isn’t necessarily money allocated this year for the project within that budget.
However, he does say there is a potentially promising development in the appointment of Kevin Falcon as the new Minister of Finance.
As the Minister of Health, Falcon had presented a solution to help move the project forward and had presented it to the Minister of Finance. As the present Minister of Finance, it will be up to him to move forward with the proposal, if possible.
The proposed change would involve approving an “envelope of capital” for projects, so that multiple projects could be managed within that funding capital, eliminating some of the difficulty of going through the treasury board process for each project individually.
Rustad says while construction for the Burns Lake Hospital wouldn’t be able to start for two year, he needs the commitment the money will be there down the road.