Navigating Capital Health’s dangerous waters

Gobsmacked. That’s pretty much the reactions of Nova Scotians to the news that the water at Halifax’s Centennial Building is so dangerous that not only can’t you drink it, you can’t even use it to wash your hands! Furthermore, it may contain Legionnaire’s bacteria!

If that wasn’t shocking enough, we have only learned that this problem has existed for 30 years! Capital Health administrators, staff and the Department of Health and Wellness may have known about this problem, but the general public hasn’t. Twenty three years ago when one of our an elderly relatives was hospitalized there we were not told to avoid using the water. Seven years ago another family member was there for surgery. There was no warning to us not to drink or wash with the water. And five months ago a friend was there for major surgery. Again, there were no warnings, advisories or signs about the water conditions.

How can this be? Two years ago there was a hint that the building had on-going water problems, but the way Capital Health treated that news did not suggest this was a three-decades long problem. It sounded like a temporary hiccup that was being addressed.

How could this water problem go on for so long? Was Capital Health waiting for the funding fairy to show up and make it all better? How have successive governments allowed it to continue? If this were a hotel, apartment or office building the Department of Health – we hope – would have closed it down until the owners corrected the problem. Why not Capital Health? Why are they exempt?

In the spring of 2011 Capital Health admitted that 30 percent of hospital infections could be eliminated if staff observed proper hand-washing protocols. Well, without clean, safe water how can staff properly wash their hands? And how many patients have been harmed because of this? Two years ago when the news hinted at water problems a Capital Health spokesman said, “patient care wasn’t impacted.”

What is the proof of that statement? What studies have the authority or Department of Health conducted to prove that?

Do we know if Capital Health’s infection and death rates are higher, lower or on-target for facilities of similar size and patient volumes?

Let’s not forget that patients in Nova Scotia’s hospitals have both been made more ill and died because of the spread of C.difficile. Its symptoms are similar to the Norovirus. And the best way to prevent that is through thorough cleaning of all surfaces in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities. A basic step in cleanliness and sterilization involves clean, hot water. That’s not something Capital Health can claim to provide.

Capital Health tells us that it would cost too much the fix the plumbing problem. Their solution is a new building. What are the numbers? There must be formal engineering studies and estimates for fixing the plumbing. What would it have cost 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago? And how much have they spent on bottled water over those 30 years and continue to spend each year? And how much do they pay the Halifax Water Commission each year for water they can’t use? Do any engineering studies factor in those costs, as well as the demolition and material disposal costs versus fixing the plumbing?

I understand that fixing the plumbing problem may strain one year’s budget, but in 30 years did no one think to establish a contingency fund where they set aside some money each year to put towards the problem?

It stretches common sense that a plumbing fix would cost more than a whole new building. There are costs to demolish a building and dispose of the materials. Plus there is the cost of temporary quarters for patients and treatments and construction of a new facility. Have any studies been done on the option of a total gut of the building and replacement of plumbing and wiring, and reconfiguration of interior spaces?

Capital Health wants a new building, but the Centennial building is not that old. Most buildings in this region are far older. The nearby Lord Nelson and Westin hotels are much older, get heavy usage and are in tip top condition. Why not the Centennial building?

Roger Taylor, The Chronicle Herald’s business columnist, says in a piece in Saturday’s newspaper that people in the construction industry say the real cost of a replacement hospital is closer to a billion dollars. That really would jeopardize patient care. If a building consumed that much money, what would be left for drugs, treatments and staff? Truro went 78% over budget and now staff complain of shortages, cutbacks and limitations on what they can do for patients.

And if so much money goes to one building, what would be left for the rest of the province? Equally concerning are hints on the IWK website that their facilities need replacement. Before we commit to one new building, we need to study both facilities and weigh any decision in light of two needs.

The Department of Health also needs to explain why it has allowed this situation to continue for so long?

It may be impolitic to say, but when I heard of the extent of the water problem I immediately thought of Westray and the poor oversight the mine received by government regulators.

Equally surprising is the seeming silence of the unions. How is this not a workplace safety issue? Why didn’t they raise it publicly for the sake of their members, members of other unions who may need treatment, as well as the safety of the public? This seems another curious case of unions protecting the failures of the health care executives. Ours is an upside down world.

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3 Responses to Navigating Capital Health’s dangerous waters

  1. This is shocking on so many levels. Thanks for the red alert.

  2. Bubbie says:

    My first encounter with the Centennial Building occurred in 2006 when my mom was transferred to the Transitional Care Unit 4A, as a result of being diagnosed with mild cognitive dementia. She could no longer live on her own and was waiting to be transferred to long term care facility which took eight months. This unit was previously used for gastrointestinal procedures but was condemned and was only to be used as a storage unit. As a result of scarce long term care beds the unit was reopened a transitional care unit to house people waiting for a bed in a long term care facility. At that time the paint was peeling of the walls in the TCU, windows were leaking, there was legionella in the drinking water, asbestos was present in the ceiling tiles, flies were everywhere, the stench of soiled clothing from residents who were incontinent was unbearable and some residents died as a result of being infected with MRSA because the unit could not be disinfected properly due to cut backs by Capital Administration. I often referred to it as a human dumping ground for the elderly. 4B, just across the hall from the old 4A unit is not much better and should be closed down as well.

    The living conditions were so bad in the unit that relatives of families who resided in this unit, myself included, formed the ACE Team (Advocates for the Care of the Elderly) and after several years of meeting with Politicians and Capital Health Administrators, were successful in having this unit closed down. We continue to to advocate for better living conditions for the elderly as nothing much has improved in the last ten years.

    While billions are doled out to billionaires along with talk of multimillion dollar stadiums our health care infrastructure crumbles. Besides the Centenniial Building the total cost of bringing the provincial health care system into the twenty first century is estimated to be around twenty billion dollars. Why is HRM talking about stadiums when what we really need is a new hospital? Despite what those in favour of a stadium say, stadiums are money losers that do nothing to improve economies and are a drain on the taxpayer. Governments cater too much to businesses and interest groups who have nothing but profit on their mind and when these well heeled people require medical attention it won’t be a broken down hospital like the Centennial Building, they will be flying off to the most prestigious hospitals in the world.

    Rodney MacDonald’s plan, when he was Premier, was to have a plan in twenty years to replace the old V.G. Hospital but governments are only interested in new convention centres and stadiums and can build them within a year of getting approval.  Why does it take so long to plan for a new hospital? Ms. Power, on the morning talk show, indicated they knew of problems for over thirty years.  This is ridiculous.

    • As always detailed, precise and shocking. It is unbelievable that this is the situation in 21st-century care in a First World country, like Canada. We all have to stop being so complacent and demand more for the billions we pay into this system. Thank you for your contribution to the discussion.

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