As the government reveals new information about expansion plans for the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, community advocates say the province should publicize a detailed timeline of construction goals for the project.
"I think everyone is a little skeptical," said Dr. Kym Jim, an internal medicine specialist and a member of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta (SHECA). "And that's why we need to see some hard dates."
For years, central Albertans have said the 370-bed hospital is inadequate to handle the volume and severity of illness of patients it receives from the region, where about 500,000 people live.
Patients from Rocky Mountain House to Consort have been diverted to other hospitals, waited days for emergency surgery or languished in hallways while waiting for an inpatient bed.
Multiple governments have committed to redeveloping it, but nothing has changed.
Last February, the United Conservative Party government pledged to fund a $1.8-billion expansion of the hospital, with about 10 per cent of the funding budgeted in the next three years.
The announcement, which included $100 million in funding already pledged in 2020, promised a 200-bed expansion to the building, the construction of a cardiac catheterization lab and the addition of three operating rooms, bringing the total to 14. The project would be complete by 2030-31, the government said.
"That created a heightened sense of expectation in the community," Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston said in an interview Thursday.
What followed was silence about what the site redevelopment would look like, where they were going to put 200 more beds, and when residents would see shovels in the ground, among other questions, Johnston said.
Red Deer city council contacted Premier Danielle Smith's new cabinet ministers as soon as they were sworn in last week to press their case, and Johnston met with Infrastructure Minister Nathan Neudorf on Wednesday.
Neudorf declined an interview for this story. His press secretary, Benji Smith, said in two emails the plan is to add new floors on top of the existing hospital building, and construct a new ambulatory care building on the site in an area that is now a gravel parking lot. They will also renovate the existing building.
Smith said the sequence is undecided, but that construction of the new building and additional floors will proceed first, followed by the redevelopment of the old hospital. He said the phased approach will allow the hospital to remain open throughout construction.
Although he did not say when construction is slated to begin, Smith said Alberta Infrastructure is planning what spaces and services the building will include.
The government intends to hire a designer in early 2023 to create a detailed plan for the complex, he said. It is on schedule to be completed by 2031.
MLA demands more information
Central Alberta has already been waiting for more hospital beds for 15 years, Jim said. Health-care workers and patients need to know how soon they can open any beds, and whether that timeline can be accelerated to take some stress off a hospital crew under immense pressure.
"How can we possibly sustain what we're doing here?" he said.
The absence of tangible goals also prompted Red Deer-South UCP MLA Jason Stephan to write and publicize a letter to Neudorf earlier this week, pushing for more transparency from his own government.
"In the real world, no business developer is given a blank cheque with no deadlines and milestones for a project," Stephan wrote.
He declined an interview for this story.
With a provincial election looming in May 2023 and the Opposition NDP leading in recent polls, advocates want all parties to commit to funding and finishing the project.
"We will not cease in any way from moving this file forward from the first day of any new government. Or the continuation of an existing government," Johnston said.
NDP MLA and health critic David Shepherd said on Thursday an NDP government would commit to fully funding a hospital expansion and mount an aggressive health-care worker recruitment campaign to help staff it.
"We recognize the very real need, the very real pressures, and we recognize that this is a job that needs to be done, and done as quickly as possible," Shepherd said.
While central Alberta waits even longer for the building improvements, the government and Alberta Health Services need to amass up expertise for the new programs, Jim said.
He said it could take years to ramp up programs like pacemaker installation, cardiac catheterization, pediatrics, and surgery, and that work can start well before any heavy equipment rumbles onto the site.