Health Minister skates around commitment to Penticton hospital expansion

Mike de Jong talks money and B.C. Liberal election strategy during lunch with local party faithful

B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong (right) at a hospital expansion site in Surrey. During a visit to Penticton on Friday

B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong (right) at a hospital expansion site in Surrey. During a visit to Penticton on Friday

Health Minister Mike de Jong used hockey metaphors to explain the B.C. Liberals’ election strategy during a visit to Penticton Friday, but he skated around any commitment to funding hospital expansion here.

De Jong, who was in Kelowna on government business, dropped in on a Free Enterprise Friday luncheon hosted by the local Liberal riding association, which is gearing up for the May 2013 provincial election.

“We’re in the playoffs. The regular season is over. And if we’re going to hoist the trophy one more time, we’ve got some work ahead of us,” de Jong told the crowd of about 30 people.

The five-term MLA for Abbotsford West acknowledged his party has seen its popularity slip in recent polls, but said the only count that matters is the one on election day. He also said the campaign will be won or lost by local organizers’ ability to get the vote out.

“We’ve got to play basic hockey. Nothing fancy. We’ve got to talk to British Columbians, understand the issues that they are confronted by in their day-to-day lives and ensure that they see us as part of the solution,” de Jong said.

“We do that, and we’ll hoist the trophy. We’ll have the honour of helping to guide public policy in British Columbia for another term.”

But de Jong was more circumspect on the prospect of his ministry funding part of a proposed $300-million expansion at Penticton Regional Hospital.

The project, as envisioned, would add a new four-story building for clinical services, plus a five-story parkade nearby. Local government and the hospital foundation have committed to contributing $140 million to the build, leaving the province on the hook for the rest.

“It’s not generally the capital” funding that holds up such projects, de Jong said.

“Those are one-time costs. Our obligation to you is to ensure the health authority has enough of your money… to fund the additional staff, to fund the additional clinicians that need to be in place. And those are recurring costs. And so that’s what we’re struggling with now is to come up with a plan so that when we’ve got the new facility it’s staffed on an ongoing basis.”

He mentioned later, though, that the ministry is also trying to “find room in the capital budget.”

De Jong deked around a question about why Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops was recently awarded $80 million for its own expansion project, despite it being a lower priority than the Penticton job on Interior Health’s capital wish list.

He did, however, praise local officials who are driving the PRH project.

“The argument around Penticton as a priority has been made successfully,” de Jong said. “The argument now is not whether, the argument now is how.”