Minister accuses Ball of irresponsible spending promises

James McLeod and Diane Crocker
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Ball promises multimillion-dollar PET scanner for Corner Brook if elected

The next scheduled election is still close to two years away, but at a public meeting in Corner Brook earlier this week, Liberal Leader Dwight Ball made an expensive election promise.
If elected, Ball told a crowd Thursday night, he’ll put a PET scanner in the planned hospital in Corner Brook.

But Health Minister Susan Sullivan has a question for Ball: Why would you do that?

Ball and Sullivan argued about the PET scanner for Corner Brook last fall in the House of Assembly, with the Liberals pushing the government to consider it, and Sullivan flatly saying it’s not a good idea.

A PET scanner is a medical imaging device that uses isotopes and antimatter to produce three-dimensional scans of the human body. Currently, work is underway for a PET scanner to open in the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, but Sullivan said that there’s just no way to justify a second one.

Looking at the numbers, Sullivan said that when the scanner comes online in 2015, they’ll likely see about 870 scans per year — which means they’ll run the machine two days per week.

In the Western Newfoundland region, there’d be a need for about 170 scans per year.

“That would be two scans a week,” she said.

But Ball said he doesn’t buy those numbers. He said if you include people from the Central Health area and Labrador, more people would probably use the Corner Brook PET scanner if it was built.

A PET scanner would cost at least $2.5 million to build into the new Corner Brook hospital, which is currently in the planning stage. It’d also cost about $2 million to run — that is, if the government could find qualified people to run it.

“We’re talking about very highly trained specialists,” Sullivan said. “Being able to recruit them is very very difficult, but retaining them is really dependent on the amount of work they are able to do. If they can only do two to three scans per week, then maintaining their own levels of competency, I think, would be an issue.”

But Ball said he’s convinced that by building a multimillion-dollar PET scanner in Corner Brook, there will be ways to partially offset the costs.

“There’s less biopsies, for instance, in some cases,” he said. “We’re seeing travel to move people you know, to areas like St. John’s from other areas of the province. It’s all taxpayers’ costs.”

One of the main functions of a PET scanner is for imaging tumours as part of cancer care. The province only has one cancer-care centre, at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s.

Ball said he’s not willing to say one way or the other whether, as premier, he’d include a radiation unit at the new hospital.

“We didn’t make a commitment to the radiation therapy,” he said.

Whether or not Ball is on board, west coast Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce is definitely pushing for a radiation unit in Corner Brook.

“In 2012, there were over 500 people who had to travel from outside of St. John’s to receive cancer treatment,” Joyce said in the House of Assembly on Nov. 25. “Given our high rates of cancer, our aging population and the number of people travelling to St. John’s for treatment, the Western Region should be considered for the fight against cancer.”

Ball said Joyce might be gung-ho, but as leader, he still hasn’t made a decision.

“Oh, he’s pushing for it, not doubt,” Ball said. “I’m not willing to make that commitment until I know what it would cost to operate it, what it would cost to build it.”


Liberal commitment ‘political’

Sullivan says a Liberal commitment to put a PET scanner in Corner Brook’s new hospital is “very much a political decision.”

It’s one she said was made to please the electorate.

Sullivan said the Liberals are on record saying the province needs to extract better value for dollars spent in health care.

“Mr. Ball’s decision on a PET scanner for the west coast is in direct contradiction of that position,” she said.

Ball told those gathered at the Greenwood Inn and Suites that his party has “done enough research on PET scanning to know that in eight years time there’s no reason in the world Western Memorial wouldn’t have a PET scanner.”

He said by the time the new hospital is built it would be basic equipment.

Sullivan, however, says she would like to know where Ball and his party are getting their information.

“That’s not any of the research that we have uncovered here in the Department of Health and Community Services,” the minister said. “It is not what the World Health Organization is telling us. It is not what the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Information and Research is telling us.”

As for the hospital becoming an election issue, Sullivan said she has faith that the people of the western region of the province will side with what the Tories have planned.

“When they have all of the facts and they’re presented with the facts, I think they will agree that real value for dollars spent has to be at the core of any decision-making that we do around health care,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan will be in Corner Brook within the next few weeks to meet with city council and other municipalities regarding the new hospital. She also plans to meet with the executive of the local health-care action committee that organized the meeting held last week.

She said she’s heard the concerns about the facility that were discussed at the meeting through the media, and they are issues the province can answer.

“I certainly understand that the people of the western region of the province want the best facility possible,” Sullivan said. “And we want that for them, too.”

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The Western Star

Organizations: Health Sciences Centre, Corner Brook hospital, Greenwood Inn Department of Health and Community World Health Organization Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Information

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Western Region Western Star

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