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This column appeared in the Ottawa Citizen Jan. 28, 2004

By Marlene Rivier

It's becoming increasingly difficult to tell our new Liberal government from its Tory predecessor.

Recent reports indicate that Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty is quietly adopting the Tory public-private partnership (P3) model in carrying out much-needed health infrastructure redevelopment.

This despite promises on the eve of his election that he would halt Tory privatization of our health-care system. The provincial deficit is no surprise, so he cannot use it as a rationalization. It became evident during the election campaign and is a poor excuse, in any case, for adopting a redevelopment model that will cost taxpayers more while putting money in the pockets of multinational corporations.

Mr. McGuinty seems to find P3s as seductive a means of hiding government debt as did his Tory predecessors. Under current accounting practices, governments are not required to include the P3 debts associated with privately financed projects in the calculation of government debt, making such arrangements irresistibly attractive to governments anxious to appear fiscally responsible.

The irony is that the taxpayer will pay more for hospitals built under the P3 model than they would relying upon the traditional method of public financing - at least 10 per cent more for the Royal Ottawa Hospital redevelopment, according to a five-member panel of economists including former TD Bank chief economist Douglas Peters. Only governments can command the most favourable rates on behalf of taxpayers. The additional costs incurred in P3 developments are simply passed on to taxpayers through lease or mortgage arrangements.

The ROH admits it has already spent $8 million planning and negotiating its P3 deal, far in excess of traditional hospital procurement costs. The estimated cost has already risen from $100 to $132 million. The hospital's projected operating cost savings, if any are actually realized, will not be the result of the private sector's greater efficiency but will result from the planned 30-per-cent reduction in beds.

Typically, P3 projects which claim to cost less, achieve these savings by building smaller hospitals and reducing services.

Mr. McGuinty announced in November that the ROH redevelopment would be done as a "public" hospital project. But besides some minor contractual changes and the government's diligent avoidance of the term P3, that model seems alive and well.

If there is no public outcry, health-care privatization will move unrelentingly forward. Corporate lobbyists will attribute the increased costs that come from profiteering to flaws in the public system. They will continue to bombard us with the message that we can no longer afford our universal health-care system and will recommend further privatization, further steps toward American-style health care that favours those whose wealth guarantees the ability to jump the queue and receive blue-ribbon service, and leaves many uninsured.

Marlene Rivier is president of OPSEU Local 479 at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, where she works in the Forensics Program.

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