Hospital battle heads into court

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After years of bitter controversy and rivalry between two central Norwegian cities, Health Minister Bent Høie named Molde on Friday as the site of a new hospital meant to serve both it and Kristiansund. Opponents immediately announced they’d sue, claiming state health officials have broken several laws during the hospital location process.

Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives could finally drop a proposed change to Norway's abortion law that was initiated by the Christian Democrats party but which neither of the two government parties really wanted. The proposal also set off massive public protests, with the Conservatives catching most of the blame. PHOTO: Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix

Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives still faces massive opposition after formally approving Molde as the site of a new hospital on Friday. Many members of his own party in and around Kristiansund, which wanted the hospital located in their area, announced they’ll now take Høie and the state to court, claiming that procedural regulations have been violated. PHOTO: Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix

“This will now go to trial and the court will rule it (Høie’s decision on the hospital site) as invalid,” Dagfinn Ripnes, a former mayor of Kristiansund for the Conservative Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “This has to be evaluated legally, to the highest degree. We have warned several times that the process should have been halted, and the last word in this case has not been said.”

Ripnes’ outburst, coming from a member of Høie’s own party, is a clear indication that the bitter hospital battle is far from over. The health minister formally approved the decisions made earlier this week by the boards of both state health agencies responsible for the area: Helse Møre og Romsdal on a local level and Helse Midt-Norge on a regional level. It’s just not being accepted by the losing side in a conflict that even doctors in both Kristiansund and Molde have said has no winners.

The voting was extremely close on the local health board, with five  members of Helse Møre og Romsdal voting for Molde and four for Kristiansund. The regional health board heavily favoured the Molde location, by a vote of eight to two.

Inherited dispute
Each city has had its own hospital, but in 2011, the former left-center government decided that one larger and more modern hospital should be built to serve the entire region of Romsdal and Nordmøre. The idea was that patients would benefit from a larger professional milieu and brand-new facilities. The project is expected to cost state taxpayers more than NOK 9 billion.

The need for better hospital services for both cities had already been debated for 10 years, and the former government’s decision was as controversial as what Høie was left to decide on Friday. “I understand folks’ engagement in this issue,” Høie said after announcing his decision. “We knew that someone would be disappointed, but it’s important to put the most weight on the professional evaluation here.”

He stressed that health care authorities had “two good alternatives” for a new hospital site. He supported the two health boards’ decisions that building a large hospital at Opdøl, on property adjacent to the E39 highway east of central Molde, was the better of the two sites. Residents of Kristiansund, who marched in torchlit parades to protest the Molde site, firmly disagreed. They object to the much longer trip it will take to get to the new hospital, had fought hard for the jobs and investment that a hew hospital would bring to their community and thus strongly preferred the alternative closer to Kristiansund, at Storbakken just south of the city on the island of Frei.

Charges flying
There also have been charges of alleged corruption and back-room dealing in the case, which climaxed when the former director of the local health board, Astrid Eidsvik, resigned in protest this fall. Eidsvik, who favoured the Kristiansund site, claimed she was being pressured and overrun by the regional health board, and that set off claims and counter-claims on both sides. Some commentators believe that all those living in Nordmøre (the area around Kristiansund) then lost confidence in the entire hospital location process.

Now the mayors of many communities in Nordmøre, and former politicians like Ripnes, are banding together to block the whole project in court. The result, at best, will be further delays in any hospital improvements for the area. Høie himself, meanwhile, faces questioning by the disciplinary committee of the Norwegian Parliament following claims that he favoured the Molde site and pressured the state health agencies to push it through.

Høie has acknowledged that he had direct contact with the leaders of the two boards, but claims that was “legitimate” and in line with his responsibility as health minister, a position in which he represents the state’s ownership interest in hospitals. His contact “hasn’t diminished their ability to make independent decisions,” he told NRK on Friday. “I have not instructed anyone to come to any conclusion.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund