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Posted: April 8, 2013

Long-awaited upgrades coming to EKRH

The East Kootenay Regional Hospital (EKRH) is going to receive $20 million in upgrades to its electrical system and for a new six-bed intensive care unit (ICU).

The provincial government announced Friday, April 5 that it is providing $12 million for the work and the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District (KERHD) board of directors earlier that day unanimously approved the expenditure of $8 million to the project, covering its 40% share.

The new electrical system will be located in the basement of the new one-storey ICU, which will feature two high-acuity beds.

Kootenay East MLA and Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett made the announcement on behalf of Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and Premier Christy Clark during a brief ceremony in the EKRH foyer Friday afternoon.

MLA Bill Bennett

He opened by noting how far the hospital has come since a scathing 2000 Maclean’s Magazine article outlined “how weak and ineffective” rural health care was in Canada and the EKRH was “the poster child” for the piece.

Praising hospital staff, volunteers and government representatives who have worked to improve the hospital, Bennett said, “As my father used to say, you have taken a sow’s ear and turned it into a silk purse. It truly is a wonderful hospital and we’re very fortunate to have it.”

The new ICU will replace “the cramped four-bed ICU we have today,” he said, noting the excellent care provided in it is a because of “the people who work in the ICU. This is all for the better care of all the people in the region.”

While the ICU is the focus of the announcement, the upgrade to the hospital’s electrical system is also vital, Bennett pointed out.

“I know that’s not the sexy part of the announcement, and I get that, but it’s a big part of the expenditure. It’s pretty difficult to deliver health care services without electricity, so it’s an important part of the story here today.”

“A new intensive care unit is the number one priority at our regional hospital in Cranbrook,” said Interior Health Association (IH) board chair Norm Embree, of Salmon Arm. “Interior Health is thrilled to have this commitment from the provincial government and Kootenay East Regional Hospital District.”

KERHD board chair John Kettle

“This is a fantastic announcement for the KERHD,” stated board chair John Kettle, who is also chair of the Regional District of Central Kootenay board and Electoral Area B director.

While thanking the KERHD board, IH officials and hospital representatives for their work, Kettle “proudly” pointed out that the region is providing its funding share without a tax increase.

“The easy part is standing up here today saying this is one of the greatest announcements I have had the privilege of being involved in,” he said.

“No tax increase is huge for our taxpayers. What that tells you is we operate within our budgets,” stated District of Elkford Mayor and KERHD board vice-chair Dean McKerracher, who shared how he has been a guest at the ICU.

“It wasn’t a great experience. By the time they get all those machines hooked up to you there isn’t a lot of room for the staff to work and run around,” he said, adding, “We certainly need this facility.”

McKerracher also commended the hospital staff. “They’re a great crew and we should appreciate them greatly.”

Speaking on behalf of the hospital staff, Dr. Bill Newsome said, “We’re very excited about the new facility here. We are literally shoulder-to-shoulder in our current unit and do well. It is a testament to the hardworking dedication of the people we have here at this hospital. This will be a great service to the whole region.”

Dr. Bernie Driedger addresses the audience during the ICU announcement April 5.

After Dr. Newsome addressed the crowd in the foyer, Dr. Bernie Driedger, an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, whistled from the back of the room and stepped to the podium noting that he wasn’t invited.

He shared how he tried to lobby for an ICU “10 or 11 years ago” when the Ambulatory Care Centre was opened by then Premier Gordon Campbell.

“We didn’t have an ICU then. We had three beds in a closet. It was increased to four with really, really tight beds,” he said, detailing how the hospital has increased its staffing in recent years “in spite” of not having a proper ICU.

“We have been desperately limping along without the ICU.”

IH’s director of business support Todd Mastel earlier that day told KERHD directors the ICU upgrade “will provide a higher level of staffing and a higher level of care. It will allow us to repatriate a lot of our patients” who now must go to Calgary or the Okanagan, he added.

He explained the hospital’s electrical “backbone” will be upgraded to a 600 volt system from its current 208 volts. The electrical work will consume 50% of the $20 million budget.

The project, with a request for proposal (RFP) being issued today (Monday, April 8), is expected to take 36 t 40 months (by 2016).

KERHD Electoral Area B director Heath Slee asked if the ICU upgrade will be sufficient enough to cover needs 10 years down the road.

Mastel replied, “Our projections are that we believe six beds will cover us for at least a 10-year time frame. We have lots of options available to us.”

He noted that there is the option of adding a second floor if more space is required.

City of Cranbrook Mayor and KERHD board member Wayne Stetski said the announcement is great, welcome news for the city and region and thanked Kettle for his “tenacity. It’s a very important project for the East Kootenay.”

The announcement means Stetski can strike one of the top three capital projects off the list of needs for the city, with the Salvation Army living centre and a new Mount Baker Secondary School the other two items on the list.

District of Invermere KERHD board member Gerry Taft cracked, “I know $20 million sounds expensive; the only thing more expensive than a new transfer station in the Elk Valley is a hospital. This is definitely regional. It’s important for the whole area.”

Taft also suggested the upcoming election may have played a pivotal role in the announcement. “We’ve been pretty lucky in the election cycles” he said, noting upgrades to the Invermere and District Hospital were announced before the last provincial election and this one comes about five weeks before the May 14 election.

Kettle argued that timing is coincidental.

“We fought tooth and nail for that project (Invermere) and this project is the same. This is not political. We fought to the 12th hour to get six beds… to not go with four. It was a team effort. I spoke to MLA (Norm) Macdonald (Columbia River-Revelstoke) and he said kudos to Bill Bennett for going to the wall.”

Kettle said he has found himself feeling sorry for Health Minister MacDiarmid during the process because of Bennett.

“I felt sorry for her a couple of times. Bill Bennett is tenacious,” he said.

Bennett said the rising cost of health care remains a key challenge of senior levels of government.

“It might surprise you to know in the last 12 years we have increased our health care budget considerably, every single year in every single budget. Even during these difficult times when are trying to balance our budget we are increasing funding to health over the next three years by $2.4 billion. So it’s still going up. It will probably always have to go up in this province and across the country until that demographic bubble that I am a member of is finally gone and the young people have taken over the world. It’s a real challenge for federal and provincial governments to deal with the escalating costs of health care.”

The Liberal government has made about $50 million in health care investments in the East Kootenay in the last decade or so, Bennett said, pointing at the Ambulatory Care Ward across from where the ceremony was taking place, as well as a new diagnostic imaging centre, new emergency room, new entrance and addition of many new specialists at the EKRH as examples.

That money doesn’t include the new $20 million announcement.

“It’s still a huge challenge to find the dollars you need,” he said.

Bennett told the KERHD board earlier in the day, “It would not happen – could not have happened – without the leadership you have shown.”

Kettle responded that Bennett’s “exemplary efforts” needed to be thanked by the region for making the project a reality.

Top photo: From left: Dr. Bill Newsome, Dean McKerracher, John Kettle, Bill Bennett and Norm Embree.

Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

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