David Marsden: Finally, a healthy prognosis for our hospital

The announcement of $100 million toward improvements to Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is cause for celebration.

The community has lobbied for years for recognition of the hospital’s many shortcomings.

As Health Minister Tyler Shandro noted Wednesday, the facility is the busiest hospital outside of Calgary and Edmonton and has operated beyond its design capacity for years.

“Designing, planning and building health infrastructure provides good jobs for Albertans,” said Shandro.

“We are committed to getting the front-end work of this project right, so that the people of Red Deer and surrounding areas have a hospital that meets their needs.”

The pledge, made by Premier Jason Kenney in Red Deer, takes pressure off the United Conservative government, which has sent mixed messages in the past.

It all but ignored Red Deer in its last budget, but said that investments in hospital infrastructure would be made on a priority basis, seemingly overlooking the fact our hospital is in desperate need of greater funding.

It’s going to be essential that central Albertans hold the government to account.

Just $5 million is expected to be included in Thursday’s provincial budget, leaving the lion’s share of the money to be found in future years.

Having received the gratitude of Red Deerians fed up with inferior health care, it’s possible that provincial politicians might become distracted by other needs elsewhere in the province. That would be unacceptable, given how long the region has waited for infrastructure investment and what’s at stake.

Holding the government’s feet to the fire is a regional responsibility. About half of the patients seen at the hospital are from outside the city, and the region’s population is expected to grow by 24 per cent, to 358,000 people, by 2035.

Kenney says consultations will continue on what should be included in the first phase, and that construction should be underway next year.

Surely, the biggest failing at the hospital is the lack of a cardiac catheterization lab. As Red Deerians know well by now, the life-saving procedure isn’t available in the city, so patients have to be taken to Calgary or Edmonton by ambulance, wasting valuable time.

It’s estimated that the risk of central Albertans dying of a heart attack is 50 to 60 per cent higher than for those living in the province’s two largest cities.

Certainly, the government should conduct its due dilligence when it comes to deciding what’s going to be included in the initial phase, but it is gratifying that a cardiac catheterization lab will be among the earliest improvements.

Wednesday’s hospital announcement is tremendously encouraging, but there will be plenty to watch for in Thursday’s budget.

Red Deer, remember, had been promised $7 million for a homeless shelter by the previous NDP administration. This, too, is a priority, and it will be interesting to see if money will be earmarked for care of some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Also looming large are the steps the government will take to put Alberta on a better financial footing.

For now, though, central Albertans can take some comfort in the fact the dreadful state of our hospital seems about to be addressed.

There is finally reason for optimism.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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