LOOKING BACK/AHEAD: Burnaby Hospital consultations became political football

Burnaby Hospital’s year in the news was one of political wrangling, damage control and, when it came to the community consultation committee struck to look into its future, a clumsily-handled exercise in bad optics, no matter how well intentioned.

In February, it came to light that several senior doctors at the hospital had written to Fraser Health Authority CEO Dr. Nigel Murray over a situation that had led to the facility having the worst rates of Clostridium difficile associated diarrhea (CDAD) in the province resulting in dozens of deaths over a three-year period.

One of the issues raised was the age of the hospital, part of which was built in the 1950s, and an outdated design that hampered cleaning efforts, a major component of infection control. On April 27, then-Health Minister Michael de Jong announced Fraser Health was undertaking the first stage of a master planning process for Burnaby Hospital at a cost of $230,000.

The announcement came late on a Friday afternoon, not generally the best time if someone actually wants wide media coverage.

At his visit to the hospital that day, de Jong also announced Liberal MLAs Harry Bloy (Burnaby-Lougheed) and Richard Lee (Burnaby-North) would chair and vice-chair, respectively, the Burnaby Hospital Community Consultation Committee, an additional public process.

Interestingly, the ministry’s press release about the Fraser Health planning process made no mention of the Bloy-led committee.

And a few weeks later when the NewsLeader began looking into criticism about the makeup of the group, Michelle Stewart, then-communications director for the health ministry, said, “The ministry didn’t have a role in establishing the committee,” before referring all inquiries to Bloy and Lee.

In May, when two Burnaby Hospital nurses pointed out to Burnaby council that no front-line nurses were included in the 12-member committee, Coun. Nick Volkow responded that neither were any representatives of council or city hall despite the fact land-use issues would likely be discussed.

Instead, joining the two MLAs were Pamela Gardner, former hospital board member; Dr. David Jones, the hospital’s medical coordinator; Burnaby Hospital Foundation member Vern Milani; emergency physician Dr. David Yap; plastic surgeon Dr. Ross Horton; Burnaby accountant Bob Enns; SUCCESS CEO Thomas Tam; retired nurse Teresa Leung; former nurse Wendy Scott; and Jennifer Roff, registrar of the College of Denturists.

As it turns out, Gardner was a former Liberal riding president for Burnaby-Edmonds and has donated to the party.

And no one with New Democrat-leanings were invited to be part of the committee, including Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Kathy Corrigan, in whose riding the hospital sits.

Burnaby council chose to ignore what it believed was a politically-motivated initiative to focus the city’s efforts on what it deemed the “official” planning process, that being done by Fraser Health and the health ministry.

Bloy replied council’s decision would mean Burnaby citizens would lose out.

“It’s saddening for the people of Burnaby that council and staff won’t be participating in our citizens’ forum,” he told the NewsLeader in June.

“The committee was announced by the Minister of Health. I don’t know how much more official you can get.”

Public meetings were held in the summer, when people commented on everything from the cost of parking and wanting more culturally-diverse hospital food to the aging buildings and, in the case of surgeons, the lack of operating room time.

Then, as if to quell any suggestion that the committee was apolitical, came a series of emails leaked to the B.C. NDP which Gardner, the committee’s “citizen chair,” sent to Liberal operatives and Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid. They discussed how the committee’s work could be used as part of a Liberal election strategy.

The final report, it was learned, was being written by Sonya Sanguinetti, a retired lawyer and a former president of the B.C. Liberal Party. And in one email, Gardner suggested Fraser Health would be blamed for complaints about the lack of hospital resources.

Referring to Sanguinetti, Gardner wrote, “She feels this isn’t a reflection on the Liberal government but more on the Chair of Fraser Health. The government hires someone and has to trust they will do an equitable job. It’s not the Liberals that force and continue to allow the citizens of Burnaby to suffer.”

That was followed by a three-page document also leaked to the NDP and purportedly written by three Liberal operatives—Gardner, Brian Bonney, a former Burnaby mayoral candidate who reportedly works as a B.C. government communications director, and Mark Robertson, director of field operations for the BC Liberal Party—which proposes using the prospect of a rebuilt Burnaby Hospital as a campaign issue.

“Everyone in Burnaby feels Burnaby hospital needs to be re-built. Citizens feel we have been over looked for many years,” it said. “A PCC (Premier Christy Clark)  government delivering this will dramatically help our chances to win Deer Lake where the hospital resides.”

The document appeared to suggest the idea for the hospital review and planning process came in December 2011 as the document recommended that Clark, de Jong, Lee and Bloy tour the hospital and announce a rebuild or review.

By the time the committee’s report was released on Nov. 30, its credibility was in question. Nevertheless, it raised concerns about aging infrastructure such as the fact if plumbing or electrical worked needs to be done in the old buildings, the service to the entire building would have to be shut down first.

But while the committee was started to look at the future of Burnaby Hospital, specifically the need for new or upgraded buildings, much of the report dealt with the seemingly lower amount of operational funding it receives compared to other hospitals in the region.

Fraser Health said it would review the report but that it appeared much of its operational comparisons were not apples to apples. MacDiarmid said it also didn’t take into account that as a community hospital, Burnaby would normally receive fewer resources than those designated to provide a higher level of care.

Days after the report was released, MacDiarmid said she would be meeting with Fraser Health and health ministry officials to discuss how the issues raised would be addressed. She said she had met with Burnaby Hospital doctors after becoming minister in September and a consultant is expected to complete a report soon on the concerns they brought up then.

The new master plan for the hospital is also due for completion by Fraser Health shortly, the first step in the redevelopment planning process, she said.

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