Community leaders who are pressuring the B.C. government to fund a new $300-million hospital tower in Penticton might want to borrow a page from their Vernon counterparts’ prescription pads and hire some lobbyists.
In August 2011, Vernon doctors retained a pair of lobbyists to help secure the funding necessary to finish two floors at the new hospital tower in that city. The hired guns’ work paid off with a government funding announcement just eight months later.
At the time, the $29-million project was ranked seventh on Interior Health’s capital wish-list. At the top was, and still is, the proposed ambulatory care tower at Penticton Regional Hospital.
Doctors here are asking the B.C. government to fund a $160-million share of the project and are following the example set in Vernon by first attempting to rally public sentiment. They’ve also discussed the possibility of hiring lobbyists to work on their behalf in Victoria.
“We’ve talked about it, but it hasn’t come to that as of yet,” said Dr. David Paisley, president of the Penticton Medical Staff Society.
According to records contained in the B.C. lobbyist registry, two groups of Vernon doctors each hired a lobbyist to work on their behalf.
Dr. Chris Cunningham, the only physician mentioned by name in the records, did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the Vernon lobbyists, Bruce Young of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, said he was unable to discuss the arrangement, while his colleague, Michael Drummond, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the registry documents, the intended outcome of Drummond’s efforts was “arranging a meeting between an individual and a public office holder” regarding “completion of upper floors of the new Vernon Jubilee Hospital.”
Young’s intended outcome was to arrange the same type of meeting and “articulate community support for the upgrades to Vernon Jubilee Hospital and gain support from the Ministry of Health.”
Both lobbyists’ target was then-health minister Mike de Jong, but it’s unclear if the meetings actually took place. De Jong declined an interview request.
Michael Geoghegan, a lobbyist who runs a self-titled consulting firm in Victoria, said he, like others in his field, doesn’t twist arms in back rooms. Rather, he is “essentially an advocate for hire.”
“It’s like having someone represent you in court. (Lawyers) know the procedures, they know the ins and outs, so therefore you end up saving yourself a lot of time and grief,” Geoghegan said.
A lobbyist, he continued, is no different than a mechanic or an accountant who’s an expert in a particular field. In his case, it’s government relations.
“The one thing I want to emphasize is it’s not a dark science,” Geoghegan said.
Penticton city councillor Garry Litke, who’s helping organize the bid to get funding for the hospital tower here, said he’d be uneasy spending tax dollars on a lobbyist to influence a government decision that should be based on need alone.
“But I guess that’s the way of the world, and if lobbying is required, then so be it. If that’s the way the government wants to make those decisions, then we have to play by those rules.”
Litke is trying to round up $20,000 through the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen to match funds put forward by local doctors and supplement cash already spent on the campaign by the City of Penticton.
But rather than retaining a lobbyist, Litke said his group is leaning towards hiring a communications consultant in the Lower Mainland who can get the campaign media coverage in that market, where it’s more likely to influence decision-makers in Victoria.