Hospital protests break out in Oslo

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Reality is setting in for Oslo-area residents and their political representatives, that they face losing their biggest local hospital. The state plans to phase out and then shut down Ullevål University Hospital, a sprawling, historic health care institution that’s played a huge role in many Norwegians’ lives, and send all its patients to expanded and renovated facilities at other local hospitals.

Ullevål University Hospital in Oslo has loomed large in the lives of many Norwegians over the years. Now state hospital administrators plan to phase it out and shut it down, within the next 10 years. PHOTO: Wikipedia

“It’s health policy madness to shut down Ullevål Hospital,” Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament for the Reds Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. He was among protesters speaking outside Oslo City Hall earlier this week, in an effort to block the process.

“Ullevål is Norway’s biggest and most important acute-care hospital,” Moxnes said. “It has one of the best trauma departments in Europe, and is Oslo’s sense of security in times of terror or crisis.”

The state took over control of Norwegian hospitals from local municipalities several years ago. Local Oslo officials thus have little if any say over looming reform of the hospital structure for the nation’s capital. State government politicians also turned over most responsibility for the hospitals to their regional, state-owned health care administrative agencies, in this case Helse Sør-Øst, which has become a hugely powerful entity in southeastern Norway.

Its plans, with support from Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservative Party, call for replacing Ullevål, which comprises many buildings viewed as outdated and in urgent need of renovation. The regional hospital administrators think it will be more efficient to build new, modern facilities elsewhere, and transfer Ullevål’s functions to the other, updated sites. The huge property on which Ullevål currently sits could then be sold off, likely at a large profit, and converted into a residential and commercial neighbourhood.

Massive construction and reorganization
The health care agency’s plans involve expansion of Norway’s relatively new national hospital (Rikshospitalet) in Oslo’s Gaustad district by 87,000 square meters, to take over most of Ullevål’s operations that cater to Oslo residents. All cancer treatment, however, will be centralized at Oslo’s Radiumhospitalet, which also will be expanded.

Administrators and politicians will also correct the mistake made many years ago when Oslo’s centrally located Aker sykehus was phased out (but not entirely shut down) and thousands of its patients moved to the then-new Akershus University Hospital (Ahus) northeast of the city in Lørenskog. Ahus was never big enough to handle all the patients for which it became responsible. Now everyone living in Oslo’s northeasten valley of Groruddalen stand to be transferred back to an expanded and improved Aker, which also may serve as an emergency health care station to relieve pressure on Oslo’s existing and locally run acute care facility, Legevakten, downtown.

The first phases of all the construction and reorganization involved are expected to be completed by the mid-2020s and cost around NOK 36 billion (USD 4.5 billion).

Ullevål patriots want their voices heard
The problem now is that many Oslo residents, health care professionals and local politicians think the hospital planners are making a new mistake all over again. They don’t want to see Ullevål abandoned, fear the massive new plans will involve huge economic risk, and that state planners will once again underestimate hospital needs 10 to 15 years from now. Environmentalists, meanwhile, see no need to demolish Ullevål and build elsewhere, while some activists have banded together to organize a new movement called Redd Ullevål sykehus (Save Ullevål Hospital). They were also among those protesting this week outside Oslo City Hall, at a meeting where city politicians attempted to get answers from state officials to their many questions about the massive hospital restructuring.

Most support the expansion and renovation of the old Aker Hospital, to return it to its former position as a major local health care insitution. They want to halt plans to expand the National Hospital at Gaustad, though, which already is mostly committed to caring for patients flown in from other areas of Norway that lack top medical expertise. They fear there won’t be room for all the patients from both outlying areas and Oslo at Gaustad.

‘Wasted effort’
Commentator Aslak Borgersrud, writing in newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday, wrote that the rising protests may be wasted effort. Neither the City of Oslo nor the Parliament, nor even the state government, seem able to overrule  Helse Sør-Øst, since the government pretty much has given it the power to act as it sees fit.

“If you want to march in a torchlit parade against the destruction of Ullevål University Hospital, you’ll have to take the train or drive the 120 kilometers to Hamar, and demonstrate outside the regional administration’s offices,” Borgersrud wrote.

Moxnes, the MP who has wielded power in Parliament before, is undaunted. He admits there currently is no majority in Parliament to halt the hospital restructing plans in Oslo, but claims he’ll put forth a proposal in Parliament after it opens in October to do just that. “Everything is possible, and now is the time for Oslo’s population to raise an uproar,” Moxnes said. “A majority in Parliament can ask Health Minister Høie to instruct Helse Sør-Øst to save Ullevål Hospital.”

Ongoing protests appear likely. Much of all the planning by Helse Sør Øst seems to have gone unnoticed, until now. As the enormity of the looming changes sets in, opposition is likely to get stronger. Health Minister Høie has, meanwhile, signalled that he’ll be leaving the government, and leaving someone else to take the heat.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund