By Don Crosby, Sun Times Correspondent
The mayor of West Grey says he’s now more optimistic about a new hospital in Markdale than he has been for a while.
“I’m probably more encouraged at this point than I was two or three years ago. (Then) it seemed like we were getting lip service for it. With the support of the LHIN (Local Health Integration Network) and constant meetings with Ministry of Health staff there’s an awareness of the absolute need, not just a want. This is a need for a new hospital in Centre Grey,” Kevin Eccles said during an interview Monday from the Ontario Good Roads conference in Toronto.
Eccles headed up a delegation with Southgate Mayor Brian Milne, Grey Highlands Mayor Wayne Fitzgerald and Chatsworth Mayor Bob Pringle as well as Grey County Warden Duncan McKinlay that met with Health Minister Deb Matthews on Monday morning.
The 15-minute meeting with Matthews didn’t produce a firm commitment for a new hospital, but the delegation was assured that the proposal “is very much on the radar.”
Eccles learned a few weeks ago that the project has the support of the South West Local Health Integration Network, a key step in getting onto the government’s capital projects priority list.
“According to the LHIN it is number 2 on their list of hospitals. They’ve got five projects and it’s number 2. And the Ministry of Health is pushing strongly for it,” said Eccles.
Southgate Mayor Brian Milne echoed Eccles’ optimism.
“The Markdale hospital is very much on the radar. The government very much wants to do this project but it’s just a matter of getting it into the lineup of projects that need to be done. Minister Matthews said you’re doing the right thing, keep going and we’ll get there, but she made no firm commitment beyond encouraging words,” Milne said.
Eccles said his sense is that the government wants to approve the project but is hamstrung by budget pressures.
He said the Ministry of Health can only make recommendations to the infrastructure minister, whose decisions are given final approval by Treasury Board.
Eccles said he plans to seek a meeting with officials with the infrastructure ministry to press the case for the new hospital.
Milne said he was convinced that Matthews understood the frustration of the community, which has raised more than $13 million for a new hospital, only to have the project stall.
“She understands the frustration and she is frustrated herself. She’s as frustrated as anybody else, but the project is going to have to wait its turn,” Milne said.
Matthews turned down a proposal by Grey Highlands Mayor Wayne Fitzgerald for private funding to pay for construction of the new hospital now and have the province pay back the investors later.
“The minister tried to make it clear that while that’s a good initiative, at the end of the day the province is going to have to pay that loan back. The province doesn’t have a problem getting financing. It’s the age-old problem, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from you still have to pay it back. If your capacity to pay back is limited then there’s no point in taking on any more debt regardless of where it comes from,” Milne said.
In response to an e-mail request for a comment, Warden Duncan McKinlay said Matthews encouraged the group to continue its efforts to move the project forward.
“She indicated that this is known as a worthwhile project, caught up in the competition for scarce resources which keep it off the ministry project list but worthwhile (enough) to keep in the forefront for the time when funding may be available,” McKinlay said.
“Cautious optimism comes from the premier’s statement today of his government’s commitment to health care in Ontario. Only time will tell how this commitment may affect the future project in Grey County,” he added.
Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker said the delegation made a good presentation and is helping keep the proposal before the minister.
“I think she likes what is there. She has not forgotten about . . . I think Deb has an affinity for the what is being proposed there and she understands the need. I think it was encouraging that I didn’t hear anything saying you’re off the list. They are not on the first five-year plan, but that plan is reviewed on an annual basis,” said Walker.
Walker said he too is convinced of the sincerity of the minister.
“I trust if they had the cheque-book ready that would be good to go, but the reality is they are overextended, overcommitted perhaps and now is the challenge of where and when do we write this cheque,” said Walker.
He promised to keep the proposal before Matthews in the legislature.