By Heather Ramsay-Just as a touted health-related travel service starts, the Ministry of Health has seen fit to cut visits by medical specialists to the islands by one third.
A new Northern Health Connections bus will be providing trips between communities for patients who need to go to larger centres for specialized health care. The highway coaches will have the first on-board wheelchair accessible washrooms in North America.
But at the same time, the 2006/07 budget for visiting specialists on the islands has been cut from 40 visits to 27. These specialists cover such fields as psychiatry, general surgery, urology, obstetrics and gynaecology.
MLA Gary Coons thinks the timing is horrendous.
“There are less specialists coming to town because you can just hop on the bus,” he says. “What a waste of time and money.”
The New Democrat Health critic Adrian Dix says although demand for health care continues to grow, the BC government is obviously not meeting the needs of rural and remote patients.
He says an internal document shows the Minister of Health George Abbott is only planning to fund 65 per cent of requested visits to rural communities in the northwest under a province-wide Northern And Isolation Travel Assistance Program which allows physicians and specialists to visit remote communities.
Chief of staff at the Queen Charlotte Islands General Hospital Dr. Tracy Morton says visiting specialist services are vital to islanders who are financially disadvantaged or have disabilities that prevent them from travelling.
He wrote a letter to Northern Health’s regional chief operating officer Suzanne Johnston saying he would bring the matter to the attention of the media and local politicians.
Queen Charlotte council discussed the letter at their July 4 meeting and agreed to send their own letter to the Premier and other appropriate members of the government and Northern Health on the topic.
“This strikes a blow at the most vulnerable layers of society,” said councillor Greg Martin.
Sean Hardiman, the regional manager of the Northern Health Connections program says the new bus and the cuts to specialists visits are not connected.
“The purpose of Connections is not to reduce existing services in the north,” he says.
As for the limitations of the bus service, which runs from Prince Rupert to Terrace and on to Prince George and Vancouver, to islanders, he says Northern Health is looking for a solution.
He has looked into the concept of low cost airfares, but has received no interest from airlines to provide service options. He says the funding, a boost of $4 million to the Northern Health operating budget, works out to about $13 per person, not enough to be used for airfares.
He says the government’s travel assistance program covers the ferry fare for medical purposes and once the ferry schedule is finalized, he will work to co-ordinate the bus schedules.
Dr. Jamie Chrones says the bus doesn’t really help islanders at all. “It doesn’t address the issue of getting across the water,” he says.
He says people often need to visit a specialist more than once and feel it is too much of a hardship to go off-island to access these services. This will result in people not getting the care they need, he says.
He says most specialist services were already overbooked before the cuts, but there are some specialists, like an ear, nose and throat doctor, that the medical team has not been able to recruit for many years while maintaining a budget allocation for one.
“If we are not using the funding for some, why not let us use the funding for the specialists we do use?” He sees this as a short-term solution. “The permanent solution is don’t cut anything. We are so remote. We don’t have the option of driving three hours down the highway.”
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