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Health brass wants new hospital site identified and paid for ASAP

Cowichan District Hospital
Cowichan District Hospital's flaws include cramped storage, questionable seismic safety, asbestos throughout, crowded parking lots, too many patients per room, leaking pipes, an aging elevator, crumbling infrastructure, and poor elder-access.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland/file

Do you know where our new Cowichan District Hospital could be built?

If so, regional hospital-district board members, and Island Health brass want to hear from you.

The candidate 12- to 20-acre property must be outside the 500-year flood zone. It also needs good landing and lift-off access for medivac helicopters serving patients in the new $300 million-plus hospital.

Sitting in central Cowichan — away from neighbouring homes and businesses — while boasting growth room, hook-up capacity to water and sewer lines, plus good highway access, would be pluses.

The wish list, and processes for finding, buying, building and financing CDH's new 26,000-square-metre hospital were explained and discussed during Saturday's public session at VIU Cowichan.

The hosts were Cowichan Valley Regional District Chairman Rob Hutchins, and Island Health's capital-planning director Chris Sullivan.

Their pitch informed folks CDH's current Gibbins Road site, and 1967 hospital, are basically obsolete, according to a recent master-site plan.

Those optics showed an old CDH with cramped storage, questionable seismic safety, asbestos throughout, crowded parking lots, several patients per room (allowing germ transmission), leaking pipes, an aging elevator, crumbling infrastructure, and poor elder-access for a growing population now at 82,000.

Chronic bed shortages worried CDH X-ray technician Erin Whiteford.

"Everyday we're over capacity," she explained of CDH's 95-or so staffed beds.

Site manager Peter Fahey told how staff uses every square inch of available bed space, pushing numbers to around 140 at times.

A suggestion that recovering patients might be helped in unused space in the former Cowichan Lodge — while a new CDH is built — was basically nixed as impractical by Fahey and Sullivan, who cited medical standards.

Whiteford warned the new hospital must have enough beds to allow population growth. "If not, we'll be building another new hospital in 40 years."

Still, Sullivan explained additions could be made to the current CDH's sloped site — such as erecting a nine-story hospital to reach the needed 26,000-square metres.

Or a new CDH could be build next door, and the old hospital could be demolished with lots of noise and dust.

It was unclear where all that demolition waste would go.

It was also hazy how much a new CDH could cost.

Hutchins explained the price will see a 40-60% split between Cowichan taxpayers, and Victoria.

"It could be closer to $400 million," he said, admitting many foggy factors still in play, such as finding the right site.

So he and Sullivan laid out a prescription for a new CDH elsewhere.

Rumours about a new hospital at the University Village, or on Cowichan Secondary School's current site, were unfounded, they explained.

Hutchins was worried a good site be found and bought as soon as possible.

It didn't seem to matter mapping of the valley's 500-year flood plain hasn't been done yet. Sullivan said that mapping should be done within weeks.

But resident Greg Gerbis said the new CDH should be built where it doesn't need dike protection.

"We're still in the flood plain (at VIU). The (nearby) dike doesn't give us any guarantees."

Site acquisition funds from valley taxpayers would come from about $10.5 million saved so far in the Cowichan Valley Regional Hospital District's replacement fund.

If a better site was found later, the CVRD could always sell the first one bought, Hutchins explained after Bruce Wilkinson questioned site ownership.

"We don't want to lose the best possible site available," Hutchins said.

Elwyn Trafford asked who has the highest site-input clout: Island Health, or Cowichan's hospital district board.

"We're working together," answered Sullivan.

"Island Health has the trump card," Hutchins added.

An ace would also be held by the agricultural land commission, if the right site needs removal from B.C.'s farmland reserve, Hutchins noted.

A local hand would be held if land rezoning is needed.

"Ten-to-one a property of this size would have to be rezoned," Ladysmith Mayor Hutchins said of a possible nine-month process.

Meanwhile, searching for the site — on public or private land — seriously starts in January.

Island Health and the regional board will also accept public feedback about where and why to best to build our new hospital.

The hunt will involve a real estate consultant, plus citizen suggestions, about the prospective property.

Candidate sites will be recommended to Island Health and Cowichan hospital district brass, and Cowichanians.

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