The Houston government is moving forward with ambitious plans to add 423 hospital beds, four more operating rooms, and two new emergency departments to meet the health care needs of a growing population over the next 10 to 15 years.

Premier Tim Houston made the announcement Thursday at a briefing on the new 10-year capital plan, which replaces the QEII redevelopment plan envisioned in 2016.

“This is about building more, building faster, and improving health care access,” Houston told reporters. “The original plan was well-intentioned, but the process was built on outdated assumptions. I won’t wait.” 

After a series of protracted negotiations due to changes in interest rates and labour market conditions, the Plenary PCL Health consortium has agreed to design, finance, build, and maintain a new in-patient tower on the existing Halifax Infirmary site. The building will include an emergency department. 

Houston said he wants “shovels in the ground” by the end of March, once the project agreement has been signed. Phase 2 at the Infirmary site is to include a new cancer center.  

The front facade of the VG Centennial Building.
The Centennial Building at the Victoria General site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre in July, 2021. Credit: Yvette d’Entremont

‘This is about beds, beds, and beds’

Dr. Alex Mitchell, the vice-president responsible for clinical infrastructure with Build Nova Scotia, said once the in-patient beds and 16 operating rooms are finished, cancer and transplant patients currently at the Victoria General (VG) Hospital will be moved to the new Infirmary tower.  

The lack of air conditioning, leaky roofs and windows, and presence of legionella bacteria in the water supply has led health care workers and families of patients to speak out about conditions at the VG, saying “the urgency to act has only increased,” Mitchell said. Mitchell’s target for closing patient services at the VG is five years from now. 

Data from the 2016 federal census suggested the population of Nova Scotia would both age and shrink. But the latest federal census and provincial Treasury Board data suggests that in 20 years’ time, the number of people 75 and older will double, while the population of the Halifax Regional Municipality grows by 30%.  

With hospital beds currently filled to 100% capacity leading to pressure on emergency departments and long waits for ambulances, Mitchell said a decision was made to expand services at several sites across HRM. 

“This is about beds, beds, and beds,” Mitchell said.  

Where new beds will be added  

On any given day, about 200 acute care hospital beds are occupied by patients who are waiting to move to long-term care or have mental health/addictions issues. The new plan includes 175 new “transition” beds to be built at two separate HRM locations for these patients.  

One location will be beside the Bayers Lake Outpatient Centre, which is 75% complete. The province will pay $2.5 million to Banc Group’s commercial division, which also sold the previous government the land where the outpatient centre is located, at a price considered well above market value when that first transaction took place. Negotiations are ongoing to purchase land for a second site. 

A group of people socially distanced and lined up in front of the Cobequid emergency department waiting for it to open its doors for the day.
There were no lawn chairs when the Halifax Examiner visited the Cobequid Community Health Centre’s emergency department before its 7 a.m. opening this week, but there were line-ups like this one on Tuesday, June 28. Credit: Yvette d’Entremont

The Cobequid Community Health Centre, where a busy emergency clinic has been overcapacity for more than a decade, will see both an expansion of its emergency department and a new building to house 36 patients.  

Dr. Michael Clory, the site lead at Cobequid, told reporters he couldn’t be happier with Thursday’s announcement. He said although the Cobequid emergency department closes at 11pm, the lack of inpatient beds means staff often now work overnight because there is no other place to send patients.  

“I am extremely excited by this announcement,” Clory said. “This is a long time coming and I was fearful it wasn’t going to happen. We know that Bedford, Sackville, Fall River is the fastest growing area in the province and people are looking to get their care at Cobequid, which was not built for that capacity. We have gone from 20,000 visits a year to what we are projecting will be 52,000 this year.” 

Another 108 beds will be added at the Dartmouth General Hospital site, as well as a second emergency department, which will be built to relieve the pressure on the current emergency department, as well as others on the Halifax peninsula.  

As part of this redevelopment, the province will pay $13.9 million to buy the privately-owned Scotia Surgery Clinic located on the same block. MSI currently covers some orthopedic procedures and pediatric dental surgery carried out at this private clinic. Scotia Surgery also provides cosmetic surgery and other types of operations to private-paying patients or those covered by Workers’ Compensation and health insurance. 

The multi-year capital plan envisions the building of a new mental health and addictions treatment facility on the property overlooking the harbour where the aging and largely unoccupied Nova Scotia Hospital sits. Construction is estimated to begin sometime after 2026. When complete, the Purdy Building at the Nova Scotia Hospital site will be torn down. Apart from the new Halifax Infirmary Plenary that PCL Health will build, all other projects described in this plan will be tendered as individual projects.  

Gerard Jessome, chief executive of engineering with the Department of Public Works, said breaking up the components of the massive QEII redevelopment project and opting to build the elements in phases should make it easier to find tradespeople to do the work. He said it will also provide an opportunity for local construction companies to bid on one or more of the projects.   

The new plan will allow some of the components to be built at the same time while others will have to wait eight to 10 years. In addition to what has been previously described, the last phase of the health care expansion includes replacing the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre and building a new Maritime Heart Health Centre.  You can find more details here.

What will the expanded new facilities cost?  

Four white politicians sit at a dark wood desk. Behind them is a video screen that says, "More, faster: The action for health build." There are also several blue and white Nova Scotia flags behind them.
Premier Tim Houston, left, Karen Oldfield, CEO Nova Scotia Health, Michelle Thompson, Minister of Health and Wellness, and Colton LeBlanc, Minister for Healthcare Redevelopment, at an announcement about new health care facilities on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

“Billions and billions of dollars,” is the best estimate reporters could get from Houston. The premier suggests the question Nova Scotians are asking is not how much new hospitals will cost, but how soon they can be built.  

He did acknowledge the first step ⁠— the building of an inpatient tower, operating rooms, and cancer centre at the Halifax Infirmary site ⁠— “will be north of $2 billion.” The province also confirmed it has paid out $7 million to Plenary PCL Health for work is has already completed under the previous QEII redevelopment plan. 

Liberal health critic Brendan Maguire was critical of the premier’s reluctance to talk money. Maguire said, “nobody would start building a house without having an estimate of the cost” and that one of the trademarks of the current PC government is its ongoing refusal to provide answers to financial questions. 

NDP leader Claudia Chender said at first blush the announcement “looks great,” but she still had concerns.  

“We are happy to see the capital plan today, but we have major concerns about the lack of detail, of course, and about the decision to go forward with a P3 process,” Chender said.

“All of our research shows provincial auditor generals have consistently pointed to P3s being a flawed process for health care delivery. They don’t transfer private risk or have clear accountability so it’s hard to see how an open procurement with a single bidder is going to deliver anything better than a conventional project.” 

Health Minister Michelle Thompson told reporters Thursday’s decision to proceed with building a new hospital and expanding services at different locations across HRM will play “a huge part in recruiting health care workers to the province” as well as encouraging young Nova Scotians to consider a future career in health care. 

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result. see 1-3
    1) Money is not the issue with Health Care in Nova Scotia, we keep throwing $$ but nothing gets fixed.
    2) We expect the management who has created the present chaos to fix it are you serious??
    3)We keep saying we are listening to the people in the system doctors, nurses, paramedics but nothing changes are we really listening see 2 above.

    We owe our senior population better care re Long Term care beds, when is it going to start.
    Politicians spent money to fix problems but no one wants to tackle the real problems, all 3 have had a chance in the past 2 decades (these problems did not start due to COVID, they were here a long time before!!)
    The solutions starts at the training of staff nurses, doctors, LTC personnel, paramedics etc., can we not look after Nova Scotians first then when that is fixed help the rest of the country (because they need it too)

    We need new management — all 3 political parties have proven they know nothing about health care ( we have the results to prove it), maybe PRIVITIZING THE ADMINISTRATION of health care would yield better cannot be any worse than what we have now could it ??

    Oh Timmy, great to see you looking after HRM (where 40% of the population lives) what about the 60% in the rural area, oh that is where most of your seats and support comes, just saying there are same problems all over.