A popular political promise has come storming back to the central Newfoundland town of Botwood, where politicians are pledging — once again — increased services at the local hospital.
Both PC and Liberal campaigns are pledging to return 24-hour emergency room coverage to the Dr. Hugh Twomey Health Centre in Botwood. The issue is critical in the fight for Exploits district, where a two-candidate contest is pitting Tory incumbent Pleaman Forsey against Liberal Rodney Mercer.
The same promises were made in 2019. This time, though, those promises are being presented against a backdrop of a provincial fiscal situation that many people say is unsustainable.
"I know there's only so much money to go around, but I guess they're gonna have to cut back somewhere else," said Hilda Snow, a 79-year-old voter in Botwood.
"It's not something that we just talk about. it's something we need."
Snow, like many others, specifically moved close to Botwood's Twomey Drive area so she could be close to health-care services. The streets alongside the town's hospital are filled with seniors' residences — though the town's mayor, Scott Sceviour, says those residences have been slowly emptying.
The town's emergency room hours were cut back in 2016. It was a victim of that year's unpopular provincial budget, when Central Health was asked to find areas where it could reduce spending.
Sceviour says the results have been damaging: not only to the community, which has seen residents leave, but to patients themselves.
"I've heard rumours and I've heard stories from people that people have been sitting in our waiting room at the emergency room at a quarter to 8, and haven't seen a doctor, and all of a sudden when 8 comes they close her down and they have to leave," Sceviour said.
"They might have been waiting for two or three hours … but they have to leave and go to Grand Falls-Windsor."
Fearful of nighttime emergencies
Snow has lived through similar stories: she lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and needs an oxygen machine to help fuel her lungs. A nighttime emergency now means she has to wait at her home for an ambulance to come and then transport her — past the hospital down the road — to the one in Grand Falls-Windsor, about 40 kilometres away.
"Nerve wracking," she called it. "Especially if it's something where you can't breathe. You don't know what [these oxygen machines are like] unless you're on it."
Sceviour says those nighttime ambulance rides are common — and are adding up. So much so, that he contends Central Health and the provincial government aren't saving any money at all.
Watch: See how health-care promises are being made, and received, in Botwood:
"It was reported to us that there would be $136,000 savings," he said. "It actually cost them money, because what they proposed as a saving, they paid out in fees — they actually had to pay for the transportation cost."
The projected provincial deficit for the current fiscal year is $1.8 billion.
Sceviour said he's ready to make his case to whichever political party forms government, and and whichever candidate wins the district of Exploits, where Botwood is located. He says he's already had some favourable discussions.
"At the end of the day, we have a very strong argument and we put that forward to our two that are fighting for the MHA position in Exploits. And when we put it to the two leaders, Dr. Furey and Mr. Crosbie, both of them said this is a no-brainer. There is no savings here."
During the 2019 election, former Liberal premier Dwight Ball also promised to return the 24-hour service to Botwood. That promise was contingent on other work at the centre — the creation of a protective care unit — being completed.
It was also despite a briefing note prepared by the Department of Health that year that called the 24-hour emergency service unnecessary, and projected only two patients a night would require care during the overnight hours.
At the time, Ball justified his pledge, saying nighttime service could return at no extra cost because nurses will already be in the building, working on the protective bed unit.
Sceviour says he doesn't score it as a broken promise, because the prerequisite work to expand the building wasn't done yet. But it soon will be, and the mayor says there will no excuse for the candidates this time around.
"We have a commitment and a promise and last time I heard, a promise means something is going to happen."