Premier Christy Clark, left, is welcomed by Janice Perrino, executive director of the South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation, during a visit to Penticton Regional Hospital Friday morning.
Clark toured the respiratory unit at the hospital and spoke to staff and patients before giving a brief media interview.
"After seeing what's been going on in this hospital, I'm going to go home to Vancouver and I'm going to tell the minister of health to get moving on the business case," she said.
She acknowledged the hospital's need for expansion and admitted "this project has been stalled between the concept stage and business stage." However, she stopped short of promising any government contribution for the 62-year-old building.
"We have to get this planning started so that we can move this hospital up the agenda," said Clark.
What is revealed at the business stage will determine what happens next, she said.
"We need to see how much it's going to cost us. We aren't a government which spends money without asking first," she said.
Once a business case is completed, it could take several months to advance to the next stage, which is to identify the funding and then to put out request for proposals.
"I'm going to kick down those barriers, and we are going to get the next stage of this process moving," said Clark, who insisted any decision will be based on need and not on politics.
Her visit followed a public information meeting Wednesday night at which the Penticton Medical Society sought public support in lobbying the province for its share of funding for a proposed ambulatory-care tower at the hospital. About 800 people turned out to the meeting.
Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton, who is also the Liberal candidate for the Penticton riding, called the premier's visit "incredible," noting it was the final opportunity to make a pitch for government funding for the hospital project prior to Tuesday's budget.
Ashton said Clark had the chance to see first-hand the challenging conditions staff face and to talk about some issues with doctors.
He noted that investing nearly one-third of a billion dollars in any project means a business case must be extremely detailed to fit the needs of the hospital now and into the future.
Ashton dismissed any suggestion Clark's hospital visit may have been a desperate political move to bolster her party's chances for the riding in May's election.
"Absolutely positively not," he said, adding that Clark arrived in the city on short notice in order to view the circumstances for herself.
The hospital was built in 1951 to serve a population of about 10,000. Currently, it serves the entire South Okanagan and Similkameen, an area with a population of about 90,000, and is long overdue for a makeover.
Staff are forced to work in confined quarters and makeshift offices with bags of laundry stacked nearby.
Meanwhile, patients are forced to walk to various areas of the hospital for testing and scans, and some of them must do so with oxygen tanks or IVs in tow.
The medical society is asking for the hospital project to be included in next week's budget.
The province is being asked to contribute $160 million for the project while the hospital district has $25 million raised so far towards its 40 per cent contribution for the improvements.