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545-room facility eight years in making

PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, April 11, 2008 ) – Tahiti's new, 545-room general hospital will open next year at a final estimated cost of some 29 billion French Pacific francs (US$392 million/243 million euros) French Polynesia President Gaston Flosse announced Monday.

The announcement was made during an official visit to the eight-year-old construction site in the Taaone area of Papeete's neighboring Commune of Pirae. The some 50 people who visited the site included several Flosse government ministers, mayors, advisors, engineers and technicians.

The showcase hospital for the Pacific that originally was due to open in 2005 with 365 beds at a cost of 22 billion French Pacific francs (today worth US$297 million/184 million euros) is now scheduled to open four years later with an estimated nine-billion-French-Pacific-franc (US$121.6 million/75 million-euro) cost overrun.

The delay has been attributed to political controversy, labor strikes, several months of work stoppages, legal disputes between the government and the general contractor and six changes in Tahiti's government between 2004 and 2008.

Yet the hospital project has continued to survive and, according to Public Works Minister James Salmon, the 23 companies working on the 100,000-sq.-meter (one million+ sq. ft.) hospital with 13 operating rooms and a maximum capacity of 800 patients are due to finish their work at the end of this year.

At the moment, the hospital is about 80% completed, it was announced during the official visit led by Flosse, who was French Polynesia president in 1993 when the project was initially included in a progress agreement approved by the French Polynesia Assembly.

After the hospital's completion, the next step will be the transfer of equipment from the French Polynesia Hospital Center in the Mamao area of Papeete to the Taaone site of the new hospital. That is expected to occur during the first three months of next year.

Still missing is an official name for the new hospital and, more importantly, a precise figure for how much it will cost to operate yearly and who is going to pay for its operation.

French Polynesia Public Health Minister Charles Tetaria says there's no question of continuing to call the new facility the Jacques Chirac Hospital in honor of France's former president, French language daily newspaper La Dépêche de Tahiti reported Tuesday.

While Flosse told the some 50 people participating in Monday's media-oriented official visit that a price cannot be placed on providing public health, his health minister was talking about an operating budget of some 18 billion French Pacific francs (US$243 million/151 million euros).

But La Dépêche claimed there are three operating cost scenarios, starting from a low of 21 billion French Pacific francs, and peaking at a high of 26 billion French Pacific francs, or between US$284 million-$351 million, or 176 million-218 billion euros. That, the newspaper said, compares with an 18 billion French Pacific franc cost for operating the much older and much smaller general hospital in the Mamao area.

But Tahiti's other French language daily newspaper, Les Nouvelles de Tahiti, recalled Tuesday that a delegation of visiting experts from France last year estimated that the new hospital would cost between 20-22 billion French Pacific francs to operate.

Flosse's answer, which he delivered during the visit, was simple, according to Les Nouvelles. "It will have to be paid and we will pay it." But he added he would be counting on solidarity, referring to the government's budget as well as the "Caisse de prévoyance sociale", French Polynesia's social security and welfare system.

Flosse did not rule out the possibility of the new hospital being developed as a regional facility for the South Pacific, opening its advanced medical technology and facilities to foreign patients. However, he added that the first priority would be the people of French Polynesia (2007 pop. 259,596) so they would not longer need to travel thousands of miles to France or New Zealand for hospital treatment.

Flosse thanked the French state for its help in financing the building and equipping of the new hospital as a further demonstration of the importance of national solidarity. However, there was no indication by the local media that he was considering asking the French state to participate in financing the cost of operating the hospital.

In a timeline published in Les Nouvelles Tuesday, the heavy construction work on the hospital was completed in August 2006. An opening during the second half of 2008 was put forward.

Tahitipresse: http://www.tahitipresse.pf/index.cfm?lang=2

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