Passing motorists leaned on their horns Wednesday to cheer on more than 100 demonstrators who lined the roads near Penticton Regional Hospital to support a $300-million expansion of the facility.
The rally was organized by a group of local doctors that’s gone public with its bid to have the B.C. government commit to funding its $160-million share of a new ambulatory care tower. Local government and the hospital foundation would cover the balance.
Among those waving signs in the steady drizzle of cold rain Wednesday was retired nurse Teri Noriega, who worked in hospitals in eastern Canada and now volunteers at PRH.
“I’ve seen good hospital policy and buildings, and this does not fit, in my opinion,” she said.
Penticton’s hospital, built in 1951, “is just antiquated and needs to be upgraded. We have to get this done or we’re going to be sorry in the long run.”
Dr. Brent Harrold, an emergency room physician at PRH, said Wednesday’s rally was the first time he has demonstrated publicly since a 2002 protest against the closure of Summerland’s hospital.
He said the ER wouldn’t benefit directly from the expansion, since the proposed four-storey tower would play host to outpatient services like day surgeries and diagnostics, but it would make life easier for patients.
“I think we can provide a lot of services more efficiently if (staff) have adequate room to do so,” Harrold said.
“We’re not asking for more in-patient beds,” he added. “We’re basically just asking to provide the essential (outpatient) services.”
Penticton Medical Staff Society president Dr. David Paisley said despite not yet having a funding commitment for the tower from the B.C. government, his group’s campaign has been effective.
He noted the kick-off event, a town hall meeting on Feb. 6 that attracted 800 people, later prompted a visit from the premier. It also helped generate some of the 5,000 support letters from citizens that have been sent off to Victoria.
Doctors haven’t yet planned their next move, Paisley said, but the tower appears stalled again while the B.C. Liberal government explores options to expedite the business case it says is needed to commit to fund the project, which has been in the works for a decade.
Paisley added that B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix and health critic Mike Farnworth have been invited to tour the hospital, but have yet to respond.
Dick Cannings, who will run as the NDP candidate in Penticton in this spring’s provincial election, attended the rally and said he’s discussed the expansion project “at great length” with party brass. He said PRH is being considered as the party hammers out its election platform and a “credible budget” to go with it.
“I’m working hard to make sure this happens. If nothing else, we pledge to do things differently than the Liberals. We’ll be doing things in priority,” Cannings said, in reference to hospital projects in Vernon and Kamloops that were funded ahead of Penticton despite being ranked lower on Interior Health’s priority list.
Penticton Coun. Garry Litke in December assembled a loose group of doctors, business leaders and politicians that’s working behind the scenes to get the tower built.
He said Wednesday he plans to ask colleagues at the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen to contribute to a $10,000 fund that will pay for future activities related to the hospital campaign.
Litke said he’s also unsure what will come next: “Keep on, I guess.”