Canada’s newest hospital faces funding shortfall

Barrie, Ont. — Paul Swain, understandably, is proud of his hospital. Perched atop a hill overlooking this city north of Toronto, the new Royal Victoria Hospital certainly stands out. Looking a little like a cross between a trendy shopping mall and an aircraft hanger, it dominates the skyline of Canada’s fastest-growing community. “Drop dead gorgeous” is how Swain, the facility’s director of development and public affairs, describes it.

When it opened last fall, then Ontario minister of health, Jim Wilson, had a great time touting the hospital’s credentials: eight hi-tech operating theatres, 297 beds, and an attractive arboretum that wouldn’t look amiss in a glitzy urban department store. And encompassing some 500,000 sq. ft., it’s a far-cry from its cramped, 100-year-old predecessor.

As Swain says, it’s the Cadillac of community hospitals in Canada — only trouble is, it’s a luxury car the government can’t afford to fuel.

“When this new facility opened last fall everyone thought our troubles were over,” says Swain. “We moved from a totally inadequate facility to an absolutely adequate one -— adequate not only for today, but for many tomorrows to come. But we don’t ha the operating funds to run it day by day.”

Of the hospital’s eight operating theatres, only four are in use, and 63 beds remain unoccupied — all because the province has yet to increase the hospital’s funding from its pre-move days.

“It’s a very difficult situation. We have this excellent facility but not the funds to staff it fully,” says Swain. “We don’t have the operating resources to handle our primary care areas, let alone our secondary areas. We need significant dollars — $12-15 million more a year than is allocated right now.”

Despite its distance from Toronto — Barrie is an hour and a half drive from downtown TO — the RVH has not been cushioned from the emergency room crisis afflicting its neighbor to the south. In the first three weeks of January, an overflow situation (when too few beds are available for patients needing them) was experienced: a situation which Swain says continues to be a problem.

“On a recent Saturday, we treated 250 people in our emergency department… that’s a lot,” he says. “In fact, our ER treats as many people as any of the larger hospitals in Toronto, about 62,000 patients annually.

“But it’s not all doom and gloom,” he says. “We’re confident we can do our bit to preserve and protect the enviable and excellent example we have up here of all that’s good about Canada’s healthcare system. There’s no way in the world it will be allowed to fail, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

That includes persuading Ontario’s health minister, Elizabeth Witmer, of the hospital’s needs. In a recent visit, Witmer admitted that while funding talks were ongoing, she couldn’t make any promises the hospital would see its operating grants increased in the near future. But that doesn’t deter Swain. Ever the optimist, he thinks the changes recommended by the hospital restructuring committee will ultimately have a positive affect upon the RVH. “We’re waiting with bated breath for the restructuring committee to tour our hospital,” he says.” The minute they do, we’re confident they will see this a first class facility and we can work together to make it a role model.”

Until then, Canada’s newest hospital will just have to make do.