A development aimed at putting Westbank First Nation on the map as a pioneer in private Canadian health care is mired in financial and political controversy.
At a press conference aimed at quelling growing concerns among businesses operating on WFN lands that there are insurmountable problems stemming from a would-be private health care centre, Chief Robert Louie asserted there are still plans to see a”medically-themed development” on band land.
It just won’t be of the same scope and scale that was previously presented. Nor will it be happening anytime soon.
At best, the WFN’s attempt to find profit in private health care won’t be on the books until August 2016, a date that’s three years behind its originally-projected construction start. August 2016 is also when the next band election will be completed, and Louie’s re-election may also be required to see the project go any further. Seeing it through, he told reporters Thursday, is one of the reasons he’s even running.
“I believe in some shape or form, once all of the review has taken place and all the information is on the table, our members will come to the conclusion that a medically themed development would be the way to go if we want to be involved in something that has long lasting generation of revenues, jobs, employment and all those good things,” said Louie.
Since the WFN announced its plan to build a $125-million luxury, private hospital serving medical tourists and the wealthy, Louie says many groups have expressed interest in partnerships that have the potential to lead the project into fresh territory.
Among those he mentioned were colleges and other First Nations.
The uses for the space, he said, could be for anything from medical research to cosmetic surgery.
“We have come to the conclusion that having a 100-bed, one facility type structure probably isn’t the way to go,” he said.
Louie also pointed out that First Nations “are unique” and well set to lead the charge in Canada, when it comes to providing an alternate, for-profit stream of health care.
The Canada Health Act prohibits provinces from charging for medical services by threatening to withdraw federal transfer funds, but First Nations fall under the authority of the federal government, leaving nothing to stop them from setting up a private hospital.
Also, he said, the First Nation Health Authority has an agreement in place with the federal and provincial governments to move ahead with issues of this kind.
“Right now it’s administrative, but in the future it (can be for) addressing huge needs in this country,” he said.
Until then, the WFN is looking at a format that “takes the risk out.”
Risk is something he’s keenly aware of at the moment.
At the press conference, Louie explained the WFN is now in a position where they have to pay $8 million to the bank, or risk losing the land the project was set to be built on.
As plans for the health centre got underway, the WFN provided its partner Ad Vitam Healthcare with a parcel of land around 12 acres in size.
In exchange, Ad Vitam was supposed to raise the capital needed to construct the medical facility.
The trouble, explained Louie, is that Ad Vitam Healthcare drew funds from a $15 million line of credit that was on the property for various uses aimed at spurring the project’s growth.
Their efforts didn’t work and then Ad Vitam stopped paying the loan back, leaving the WFN holding the bag.
The WFN has “pots of money” in its reserves to pay the $7.9 million debt, said Louie, but it won’t do so until the option is taken to its membership in a referendum slated for next month.
“We’re not happy about that to say the least, however, the land is worth far more than that. The potential of the land is so huge it would be foolish to not get it back,” he said.
“We (will) get out of this mess…it may cause a little bit of membership dissension, but this is an honourable First Nation community.”