An architectural rendering of a hospital complex
The Halifax Infirmary Expansion. Photo: QEII New Generation

It will be sometime next year before Nova Scotians learn how much a new hospital complex may cost to replace the crumbling Victoria General. That’s what members of the legislature’s Public Accounts Committee were told on Wednesday by the senior government managers negotiating with the one remaining bidder.

PCL Construction is currently revising its estimate of what it will cost to design, finance, build, and operate the new complex if it is awarded a 30-year contract by the Houston government. The deadline for PCL’s financial submission is Oct. 27, after which officials from Public Works and the Department of Health and Wellness will review the submission and negotiate with the bidder.

Until the contract is signed and the procurement period is closed, the government cannot talk publicly about what is being discussed, according to Gerard Jessome, chief executive of engineering and building infrastructure for Public Works. So, until the deal is signed, sealed, and delivered, Nova Scotians will have to wait.

The province had originally budgeted $2 billion to build a new hospital with 675 beds, a cancer centre, research building, and outpatient clinic to be located on the corner of Bell Road and Robie Street. But as inflationary pressures and supply chain issues grew, one of the two companies competing to build the megaproject withdrew. EllisDon’s decision last June left only one bidder and triggered a review of the project scope, which essentially endorsed the 2015 plan.

A few weeks ago, Internal Services Minister Colton LeBlanc acknowledged it will cost more than $2 billion to build, but would not confirm whether $3 billion is the current ballpark estimate for what will be the largest construction project in the province’s history.

During the Public Accounts meeting, Liberal and NDP MLAs repeatedly expressed concerns about the government’s lack of transparency around the megaproject and whether the new Infirmary ⁠— as conceived back in 2015 ⁠— will be large enough to accommodate the province’s growing population by the time it is completed.

Karen Oldfield, the interim CEO of Nova Scotia Health, acknowledged that’s a legitimate concern and indicated an additional building may need to be considered that is outside the envelope of the present QEII New Generation project.

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

The terrible state of the VG

Oldfield is also well aware and “concerned” about what nurses, doctors, and patients have unfortunately described as “Third World conditions” at the decrepit Victoria General Hospital. The term is unfairly derisive of developing countries, many of which, despite the legacy of imperialism, have built have state-of-art health care systems.

Regardless, the label was first applied after a serious flood at the VG in September 2015 that followed the discovery 20 years earlier of a bacteria in the water that makes it unfit for drinking or showering. Leaks, moulds, as well as infestations of bugs and rodents, are common.

Despite today’s skyrocketing costs for materials and insufficient labour, the Houston government remains committed to building a new hospital to replace the VG that the preceding Liberal government authorized six years ago. At that time, then Health Minister Leo Glavine suggested the Victoria General Hospital would be ready for demolition in 2022. It will take at least another five to six years before a new hosptial is ready to open and the VG can finally close.

Oldfield said she is acutely aware of this situation, and said more money will need to be spent so the VG can continue to provide services. She says engineers are currently evaluating what type of work can be done to make the hospital a safer environment for staff and patients. She cited the lack of air conditioning at the Victoria General building as an example.

“That’s a problem I’d dearly love to solve and things of that nature where it can be solved,” Oldfield said.

So far, no money has been allocated or a plan endorsed to tackle the sick building. And while it would be impossible to move all the patients out, perhaps a deal be swung with the federal government to accommodate some patients at Camp Hill Veterans Hospital, or the military hospital not faraway at CFB Stadacona. For a couple of years, orthopedic surgeries were done at the hospital on the military base to help reduce wait times. Isn’t the current situation even more urgent?

If there is one bright spot in the hospital story, it may the Bayers Lake Outpatient Clinic, which will allow people from the South Shore and Annapolis Valley to get diagnostic tests and consultations with specialists without having to drive into the city.

According to Gerard Jessome, chief executive of engineering and building infrastructure for Public Works, that new building is on time and on budget. “Substantial completion” is estimated for next summer when it will be handed over to the Department of Health and Wellness. The outpatient clinic should open early in 2023.

There is no estimated completion nor estimated start date for the new hospital complex, which is still on the drawing board after all these years.

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

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  1. A secret deal that locks Nova Scotians into paying PCL’s profits for 30 years. How generously neoliberal/Conservative/Liberal of them. NS gets taken to the cleaners once again on a big project thanks to small minds in government.