The VG: toxic water, toxic accountability

The water situation at the VG has become a renewed topic of conversation. 

In February, The Chronicle Herald ran a news story about a microbiologist’s shock at the unsafe water conditions at the region’s largest hospital. The professor then wrote an op ed piece about fighting cancer and the right to clean water. Letters to the editor followed. 

What is surprising is that a microbiologist living within an hour’s drive of the hospital would be surprised by this. He wrote, “I was shocked by what I can only describe as a situation more generally seen in the Third World – there is no capacity to take a shower at the VG, as the water system is decrepit and has been so for over 10 years now. This significantly increases the risk of infection for the most vulnerable in the province and this is unacceptable both from a human and logistical standpoint.”

The professor is wrong – or too modest – when he says the water situation has been a problem for over 10 years. It has been a problem for more than 40 years! That’s how long the previous health authority, current health authority and Conservative, NDP and Liberal governments have known that the VG’s water system contained Legionnaire’s bacteria. For all those years the hospital’s water has only been suitable for flushing toilets. You can’t even scrub the floors with it.

Prior to the pandemic I asked the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) how much they spend for water at the VG. I was told that in calendar 2019 the NSHA distributed 40,161 1 litre bottles of water to the VG, Centennial and Dickson buildings for a cost of  $70,545.17. That seems both outrageous and yet somehow modest. It makes me question how I phrased my question and if this accounts for all water purchases for cleaning, sterilization and such? 

Distributing 40,161 plastic water bottles also isn’t exactly green. It undercuts the province’s goal to reduce our carbon footprint.

In the decade since I started this blog, I’ve written numerous times about the VG’s water problem for this blog, for The Herald and spoken on CBC and News 97 about it. 

I first wrote about the VG’s water problem October 2013:

In 2013 I asked how the water problem could go on for so long? If this was a hotel, restaurant, apartment or office building the Department of Health would have closed it. So how can a hospital continue to function with a toxic water supply?

In January 2016 I referred to a CBC report by Jean Laroche who was able to reach many previous health ministers about the VG water problem. Laroche found that for 14 health ministers the VG water issue wasn’t a high priority. Ministers act on the advice of their deputies and the health executives hired to run the day-to-day operations. Decade-after-decade toxic water wasn’t an urgent action item for anyone in charge.

How can this happen? It’s a combination of situations. I blame the laziness of the public who have no memory of on-going problems and only learn of issues when personally faced it with them. Secondly, is a tendency to automatically dismiss a problem like this as a sign of the incompetence of a government they don’t support (an excuse undercut by having had all three parties form government). Thirdly, is the lack of accountability of those in charge. I mean deputy ministers and health executives. Voting someone out of office just prolongs the problem and gives more cover to those bureaucrats and executives who fail to perform.

Nova Scotia is quick to protect the reputations of senior executives and bureaucrats, whether deserved or not. We are told that so-and-so has had a stellar career, so earn the benefit of the doubt whenever questions arise. But had those questions not been dismissed those protected careers and reputations might not have been so stellar. The tarnish would show. 

If we look across society we see examples of failure to perform, poor choices and outright criminal acts conducted by people who have risen to positions of power and trust. For example, there are the church sex scandals, and just within the last month the Chief of the Defense staff had to step aside. Before him, the Governor General left her post. On and on and on it goes.

Yet in Nova Scotia health there doesn’t seem to be any accountability for those who fail in their performance or don’t live up to what we are lead to believe their roles are. 

A prime example occured in 2002 when the Capital District Health Authority reduced the privileges of Dr. Gabrielle Horne. Dr. Horne was a cardiologist engaged in cutting-edge research and a rising medical star.  There was a disagreement with a hospital director and the health executives came down on the director’s side. Dr. Horne fought back and took the health authority to court. Capital Health and its successor organization, the Nova Scotia Health Authority, spent 14 years and $8 million defending the director. The courts found for Dr. Horne and awarded her $1.4 million – the largest such award in Canadian history. The NSHA, refusing to admit wrongdoing, appealed. The NSHA spent another $2 million to lose a second time. They did succeed in having Dr. Horne’s award reduced to $800,000. The bottomline is Dr. Horne was unfairly treated by the NSHA. She lost years of research. Patients lost out because her research was impeded. However, the director did not suffer. He continued on in his position, collecting his pay, enjoying his perks and building his pension. So did the health executives who backed him.

We can go through a lot of senior positions to find reputations which shouldn’t be protected by the public purse. 

Another example is the senior health executive who spent office time looking for sex. Normally, one’s sex life is private. Until you make it public. You do that when you 1) post a profile (with photos) on an on-line sex site, 2) your profile lists “hook up info, when: evenings, weekdays, weekends” and 3) list where you like to engage in public sex!

Being available for sex on “weekdays” is our time. That’s time we paid $223,006 a year for. Not only was this executive available for sex, they were actively on-line during office hours looking for it (the site posts a green icon when an individual is on-line). And when they travelled for business, they posted where they were staying and what they were looking for. That’s how I knew that for the week of February 4, 2019 this executive was attending a convention at the Lord Elgin Hotel. I assume the convention costs were on the public tab. [There were days when this executive was on-line for two-to-four hours at a time, presumably from their NSHA office, using NSHA technology and servers. Is there a government and NSGA policy about such use? In other situations wouldn’t that be considered contributing to a toxic workplace?]

I have struggled with this knowledge since 2011. I learned of it when I was in line to pay a bill. In small communities people chat to you, whether they know you or not. In this small line-up a man joked that since I was interested in health care perhaps I could get an invitation to the hot tub sex parties this executive hosted. I thanked him and said no. I wasn’t so much surprised that someone was having sex parties in a hot tub as I was that someone with such a high profile in a small community would think no one knew. Or perhaps they didn’t care? I kept silent about it because it was private. But when this individual posted their workweek availability they made it the public’s business. 

I mentioned it to a friend who was a webmaster. He made a few clicks and found their profile. Over the years, whenever that executive’s name was mentioned in the media I checked on-line. Their career progress made them bolder and bolder on-line. Their pay grew by 50%, they earned a long term service bonus greater than the average income of most Nova Scotians, received a $40,000 separation package and grew their pension account and enhanced their resume.

During this executive’s tenure there were serious questions about their department’s performance. I’ve always wondered if CEO Janet Knox was aware of these daytime diversions or if she preferred to turn a blind eye to them?

This kind of cover up goes to the failures in the system. Executives say they are doing as well as they can with the money they have. But could they do more if we had their full attention? Could care delivery and hospitals be better if there were actual financial, reputational and career consequences for under-performance and failure? 

Pay, perks and privileges should come with real accountability. Unfortunately, it doesn’t in health care. Otherwise, the VG wouldn’t have been allowed to jeopardize the health of patients and staff by exposure to toxic water for four decades.

Accountability only comes when we stop deceiving ourselves that changing the party in power will make a difference. It hasn’t. Accountability has to be personal and apply to everyone who accepts a public paycheque, not just the political figureheads. The bottomless public purse shouldn’t be used to silence critics and bolster resumes and pays.

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8 Responses to The VG: toxic water, toxic accountability

  1. buddyboy546 says:

    What in interesting post. You make some very good, and disturbing, points. It is hard to fathom that the cost of re-plumbing a building for safe water could be too costly. Hiding pipes within walls is an aesthetic nicety, but not a necessity. What cost to the public reputation, to say nothing of patients, family and friends who may have suffered from this water situation.

    Your account of the errant executive is interesting but marginally relevant in that it is hardly (I hope) typical. Your point of there being a need for more accountability is nonetheless sound.

    • I will be writing more on what I believe the future of the VG should be. I have consulted with several engineers and a couple of doctors. I’m waiting to hear from another source.

      As for the relevancy of the executive class, they use the resumes they have built here to rise to higher positions within Canadian health care. In those positions they influence a wider audience and patient and professional pool than just Nova Scotia.

  2. Tim Segulin says:

    Great, well detailed article.
    I’ve never understood why the VG water supply remained “unfixable” for the last 4 decades of its operation. Isn’t that one of the main reasons the Liberals are spending a billion dollar sum relocating it to the Bayers Lake Industrial Park area? A layman might imagine it would surely be cheaper to re-plumb the building rather than build a new one. Of course they might also well wonder why such a prosperous country can leave many of native reservations without water in which they could wash much less drink.

    Apart from that there is the question of why the VG – build in the mid 1960s as I understand it – is now considered unusable? Hospitals elsewhere have longer lives, why not the VG? I also notice that now claims are being made that the 1970 Mackay Bridge has reached the end of it’s service life and re-decking it would be more expensive than replacing it because sub-optimal materials were used in its construction. Lay these claims alongside the Bluenose 2 and Washmill overpass debacles and one wonders if Nova Scotia governments are really capable of managing large (or medium) scale projects at all.

    The other matter with the senior health executive sounds like something deserving serious investigation by credible mainstream journalists if the NSHA or the provincial government seem reluctant to act. If your suspicions are remotely correct this is utterly disgraceful. It is the kind of local issue that might interest Tim Bousquet of the Halifax Examiner or CBC Nova Scotia, where perhaps you already have connections. Whoever brings it to light must have the means to back up their reporting with legal resources that able to respond to expected legal intimidation in what is shaping up as an election year. The current government may possibly not have been aware of this but surely others further down the chain may, and the government must be seen to act if your story can be confirmed.

    Would you mind if I mentioned it to Bousquet?

    • My point in telling what I knew was not to nail someone, but to illustrate a point about weak corporate governance. I am content to have it off my chest, but don’t want to lead a media mob to hound and bully someone. It is enough that someone might read it here and contact their colleagues to say we have to pull up our socks. So can we just leave it here? Thanks.

  3. peter l loveridge says:

    Sometime around 2015 Island Health, the HA for at least the southern part of Vancouver Island introduced a computerized electronic record system which was implemented by Cerner, a large US IT company. It didn’t work and was dangerous for patient safety. Repeated notification to the company was ignored. When some of the physicians brought this to the public, the CEO of Island Health responded by harassing the physicians, and I think the senior nursing staff, including making complaints to the college and removing privileges. The thing got so bad that the then NDP government called a public inquiry, whose findings were absolutely scathing towards the HA. The CEO resigned at short notice before he was fired. After a few months in purgatory where does he end up ? His name is Brendon Carr and he is now CEO of the NSHA, He is now in charge of implementing a province wide electronic health record system with Cerner as one of the prime candidates for the contract, The initial cost estimate is $500 million but judging by past experience it could be double that. It is likely to be as much of a financial debacle as Sydney Steel, and I doubt if it will improve the outcome of a single patient.

    • The Island iHealth project was budgeted for $174 million. It was 18 months later and $51 million over budget. That is a 30% error. In a report released by BC’s Health Minister Ernest & Young wrote, “It is clear that there was deep mismanagement of the project: it was not properly planned or implemented, with some issues thought to be preventable if the health authority had leveraged advice from other Canadian experiences.”

      The Health Minister said, “Over the past decade, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on IT projects that have failed to deliver the outcomes promised.”

      On the Lower Mainland the Clinical Systems Transformation Project was budgeted for $842 million. It was 18 months behind schedule and cost an additional $130 million. Which the government complained was from operating funds that took away from front line health care.

    • buddyboy546 says:

      An even bigger scandal is that I am reading about this in a relatively obscure Web post and not on the front page of every newspaper nor listening to it being read as the lead story in the news. If we rely on the media to keep us informed (we do) somebody is asleep at the wheel here.

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