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HUNDREDS OF CITIZENS from communities across Vancouver Island converged on Nanaimo today demanding an end to health care cutbacks and plans that would eliminate nine medical beds at Port Alberni's West Coast General Hospital (WCGH) - a move believed to be the tip of the iceberg in eroding coastal residents' access to quality health care.

A cavalcade of 300 cars, many of them decorated with placards and red ribbons, traveled the 87-kilometer highway from Port Alberni to Nanaimo to rally outside the Vancouver Island Health Authority office.

The crowd, which also drew supporters from Nanaimo and surrounding communities, chanted in vain for VIHA's Central Island executive director Chuck Rowe to come out and address the protesters.

Opposition to the health authority's intention to move beds to Nanaimo has been building over the past several weeks, sparking a 4000-strong rally in late September outside the offices of local MLA Gillian Trumper.

Support to keep Port Alberni's hospital intact has come from all sectors of a community that is not prepared to see its new, state of the art hospital, sacrificed to the Campbell government's cutbacks and privatization agenda.

“No one has the right to steal our health care system,” HEU president Fred Muzin told the protestors. “It's the people's health care system and it belongs to us.”

Dr. Curtis Smecher, a WCGH anesthesiologist who was instrumental in recruiting medical staff to the new facility, affirmed community fears that bed closures are likely to trigger a loss of physicians. And speaker after speaker condemned the idea of further burdening Nanaimo Regional General Hospital with additional surgical procedures, particularly in the wake of Ladysmith's bed closures which are already adding to waits for surgery.

Organizers from the Save our Hospital Committee say they will keep up the fight and will be meeting in a few days to plan future actions.