Unknown costs for new hospitals in Muskoka worry Almaguin health council chair

·4 min read

The chair of the Almaguin Highlands Health Council says pre-COVID estimates from 2019 to build new hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge, which would partially be funded by communities in Almaguin, are “not going to fly today” and will have to be recalculated significantly upwards.

Rod Ward, who is a town councillor in Armour Township, said the 2019 estimates to build a new hospital in Huntsville and another new hospital in Bracebridge was pegged at about $700-million.

Ward believes that when the next estimate is made, the final price tag for both hospitals combined will be closer to $1 billion.

Ward said he arrived at the figure based on delays plus inflation has forced construction costs to rise a considerable amount.

“The 2019 numbers won't be reasonable,” Ward said.

“The numbers have changed too much in the last three years.”

Ward says it's important that new estimates be determined because Almaguin communities will be expected to share the cost to build the new hospitals.

Ward says once the estimates are known and the local health council can communicate that information, the municipalities will have a rough idea of what to set aside in their budgets as their share.

But Ward says what also has to be determined is if the municipal share will be about 10 per cent of the total cost or more.

Ward says the 10 per cent contribution is the number that normally gets tossed around as the municipal share.

However, Ward says the Association of Municipalities of Ontario has made an argument that the 10 per cent share is a bare minimum and that most likely the municipal share will approach 30 per cent because there are hidden costs in a new hospital build which include equipment acquisition.

Ward says if the hospitals cost closer to $1 billion, than the minimum 10 per cent share means that across the board all the municipalities, including those in the catchments areas of Huntsville and Bracebridge, will have to pick up at least $100-million of the cost and considerably more if the hidden costs become part of the funding equation.

Ward says it's imperative that the Ford Government be upfront with what the local share will be.

“People don't like surprises,” he said.

“And the local share has to be made very clear otherwise municipalities won't be able to budget properly if they don't know what the number is.”

Ward also says what remains unknown is if the Almaguin communities would have to contribute to both hospitals or just the Huntsville hospital because of its closer proximity to the Highlands.

He's hoping to have answers on this in the next several weeks so that the new councils that get sworn in after the October elections know what to expect.

Ward notes that this is the second time in recent history the Almaguin communities will be expected to contribute towards new hospital builds.

He says in the early 2000s they contributed towards the creation of the North Bay Regional Health Centre.

“So we made contributions north of us and we will have to do the same to the south of us,” he said.

Once the municipal share is finalized, Ward says one issue remains that must be addressed.

Ward says if the provincial government has an expectation that municipalities have to pony up a local share of the hospital build, then they "should have some say on how that money is going to be spent.”

Ward says the Almaguin communities will contribute a local share but they also need to know what services are going to be provided “to the folks in our jurisdiction.”

What Ward doesn't want to see happen is the communities in the Highlands contribute towards a new hospital with many services but “years later the services are cut.”

“We're not health experts and wouldn't tell the Ministry of Health or hospitals how to run their business,” he said.

“Having a new hospital is great. The Almaguin Highlands will be one of the major contributors because we want to protect the people who live in this area and want our people to have access to health services. But let's also make sure beforehand that something doesn't happen down the road to those services where they are taken away.”

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget