B.C. under pressure to solve staff shortages that closed ERs

Premier John Horgan repeats plea for more federal cash as three small hospitals closed ERs on the weekend

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Premier John Horgan said B.C.’s health care system is “teetering” given staffing shortages that led to the closure of three emergency rooms over the weekend but critics say the system is “imploding.”

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Emergency rooms in Clearwater, Port McNeill and Chetwynd closed for 12-hour periods between Friday and Sunday because there wasn’t enough staff, forcing patients to travel to hospitals in other communities.

The issue overshadowed a news conference in Burnaby Monday during which Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix celebrated the groundbreaking of the Burnaby Hospital redevelopment. That project has been delayed a year and is already over budget at $1.4 billion compared to the $1.3 billion price tag when it was announced in 2019.

B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said the weekend emergency room closures are a symptom of a health care system that is “imploding.”

He said new hospitals being built by the New Democrats “are going to be empty because there will be no people to actually staff these facilities.”

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Dix said 16,000 health-care workers were off sick last week, with the highest numbers in Northern Health and Interior Health, which exacerbates the staffing crunch. That’s significantly higher than pre-pandemic times, he said, because nurses and doctors are not going to work while sick for fear of being infectious.

Dix said the province has added 30,000 health care workers since 2017.

Falcon disputed those numbers, saying B.C. had 10,084 fewer employees working at B.C. hospitals as of February 2022 compared to July 2017. The figures come from Statistics Canada’s survey of employment, payroll and hours.

The Health Ministry said Falcon is relying on incomplete numbers that don’t reflect changing job classifications.

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Horgan has repeatedly pointed to increased federal funding as the key to shoring up health care. Provinces and territories have been asking Ottawa to increase its share of health-care funding from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, which for B.C. would mean an increase of $3.9 billion a year.

“We need an infusion of cash, not just here in B.C. but across the country, from our federal partner,” Horgan told reporters Monday. “The (health care) system is vibrant but the system is teetering and we need to support it.”

Premier John Horgan speaks at a press conference to announce the start of construction of the new Burnaby Hospital in Burnaby BC., on May 30, 2022.
Premier John Horgan speaks at a press conference to announce the start of construction of the new Burnaby Hospital in Burnaby BC., on May 30, 2022. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

Horgan said he’s repeatedly raised the issue with Trudeau, including during the prime minister’s visit to B.C. last week. Horgan, who is also the chair of the Council of the Federation, called on Trudeau to come to Victoria for the premiers’ meeting from July 10 to July 12.

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Horgan said while he’s “optimistic” the prime minister is taking the issue seriously, “I don’t know if … he and his team understand how important it is to get started. The more we wait, the more difficult the challenge becomes.”

The emergency department at Clearwater’s Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital was closed between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday due to “unforeseen limited staffing availability” according to Interior Health. It’s the fifth time the emergency room in Clearwater, a town of 2,300, has closed in May.

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Patients were told to go to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops — 125 kilometres or about an hour and a half drive away — despite that hospital also struggling with staffing shortages that has at times left it with about half of the nurses required.

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A nurse at Royal Inland Hospital, who spoke to Postmedia News on the condition of anonymity because she fears reprisals, said the repeated closures of Clearwater’s emergency room have placed added pressure on already burnt-out nurses.

She said the situation is “horrible” and could push nurses to quit out of frustration.

“Our emergency department is already very overcapacity and understaffed,” she said. “We just feel that we’re at a place where something needs to be done, and there’s nothing being done imminently to help with our capacity and our staffing challenges. It’s only going to get worse.”

On Vancouver Island, the emergency room in Port McNeill was closed for 12 hours between Friday night and Saturday morning because of what Island Health called an “unanticipated temporary nursing shortage.”

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Island Health said in a statement: “There is a national shortage of health care providers, affecting all provider groups including nursing. The effects of this national issue are amplified in rural and smaller programs and sites where baseline staffing numbers are lower.”

Staffing shortages also led to the closure of the emergency department at Chetwynd Hospital in northeastern B.C. from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman said she’s heard from emergency room doctors and nurses who are leaving the profession because the staff shortages have them burned out. She is calling for an independent audit of Northern Health to address the staffing issues.

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said patients faced up to eight-hour waits in emergency rooms that were open over the weekend. She said in a statement the government is focused on ribbon cutting for new hospitals while “gaslighting” health care workers raising the alarm about a health care system “showing signs of collapse.”

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