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Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews speaks to the media at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto on March 15, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government has given the green light to a long-awaited new hospital near Niagara Falls – one month before voters in the region go to the polls in a by-election.

Health Minister Deb Matthews announced on Monday that five hospitals in Southern Ontario will permanently close their doors and be replaced with a new acute-care centre, as part of a massive overhaul of the troubled Niagara Health System. The province is providing funding of $26.2-million to help develop plans for the new hospital plus two urgent-care centres, or walk-in clinics.

The restructuring of Niagara Health, a sprawling network of seven hospitals serving 434,000 in a dozen communities, is part of an effort to consolidate medical expertise, create critical mass and provide higher quality care to patients. The initiative has been in the works for more than 1 1/2 years. Kevin Smith, the government-appointed supervisor of Niagara Health, recommended in a May, 2012, report submitted to Ms. Matthews that aging hospitals in five communities – Port Colborne, Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake – be permanently closed and replaced with a new one.

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Ms. Matthews has now adopted that recommendation, saying the region will be served by two large state-of-the-art hospitals, a new one that opened its doors in St. Catharines last March and another in an as-yet-to-be-chosen location near Niagara Falls. The region also will be served by two new urgent-care centres.

The timing of Ms. Matthews' announcement drew fire from Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who accused the governing Liberals of finally moving on the hospital for political reasons.

"I just worry this is more about by-election politics than it is about health care," Mr. Hudak told reporters on Monday.

Ms. Matthews countered that Mr. Hudak is the one engaging in by-election posturing, saying he had initially opposed building a new hospital in the Niagara area until the economic situation improved. She said he only jumped on board last fall, supporting the project after Kim Craitor, the long-time Liberal MPP for the riding of Niagara Falls, resigned. "If anybody's playing politics with it," Ms. Matthews said in an interview, "it's Tim Hudak."

But New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath also accused the Liberals of using the hospital as an election tactic. "I think the people of Niagara Falls will see this for what it is," Ms. Horwath said on Monday.

While it makes sense to build a new hospital in Niagara Falls, she said, smaller towns in the region should be able to keep their health services, too. Voters are expected to go to the polls on Feb. 13 to fill Mr. Craitor's vacant seat and that of Peter Shurman, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Thornhill who resigned after a dispute with Mr. Hudak over expenses. Government sources said Premier Kathleen Wynne wants to hold the by-elections before the legislature returns on Feb. 18. In order to stick to that timetable and allow for a four-week campaign, she would have to announce the date this week. By tradition, by-elections are called on a Wednesday and held on a Thursday, making Jan. 15 the most likely day for a writ-drop and Feb. 13 the election day.

The government also announced on Monday that Niagara Health is no longer operating under supervision and that Dr. Smith has been appointed its chief executive officer. He will also continue to serve as CEO of Hamilton, Ont.-based St. Joseph's Health System.

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After a series of problems at Niagara Health – doctors had passed a vote of no-confidence in its former leadership, Niagara residents protested against the closing of two local emergency departments, and a deadly superbug outbreak in 2011 claimed the lives of 31 patients – the hospital complex is now on the right path, Ms. Matthews said.

"They have a new board in place," she said. "They were just ready to fly on their own."

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