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Merritt wants a refund for multiple hospital ER closures in 2023

Mayor Michael Goetz says his community should not ask to be charged for services it did not receive
City of Merritt Mayor Michael Goetz wants financial credit for last year’s ER closures at Nicola Valley Hospital. (Photo Courtesy City of Merritt)

In what could be an historic first for B.C., the City of Merritt is asking the province for compensation for multiple hospital emergency room closures last year.

A motion brought forward by Merritt Mayor Michael Goetz asks for just under $34,000 in compensation for the 19 days that the emergency room at Nicola Valley Hospital was closed.

Staff calculated that figure (inclusive interest) on Merritt’s $653,000-plus contribution to the operations and capital costs for the hospital, paid annually upfront.

Goetz said Merritt shouldn’t be charged for days it did not get service.

“If you come to my community and you bought a month pass at my pool…and all of a sudden a pipe broke and you are not able to go for four or five days, we would automatically credit you back for those five days or put it back on your next for the next month,” he said.

More broadly, Merritt also seeks to change the timing of its annual payment.

“Instead of taking the payment right at the front of the year, we should be paying at the end of the year, when all the days have been calculated,” he said. “(The) days we didn’t get (ER service), we shouldn’t have to pay for it. But the only way we can do this is for me to make this motion and look for a credit on the 19 days that were paid for but not rendered.”

While Goetz acknowledged that the requested amount is small, the request itself is meant to send a signal.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “You hate go down this route, but to get somebody’s attention, it’s the pocketbook that gets people’s attention.”

The motion will appear on next month’s agenda of the Thompson Regional Hospital District. Goetz said it is first time, as far as he knows, that a community has taken this step.

Goetz said he is “fairly confident” he will receive the support of hospital board mayors and area directors because several of their communities have to deal with hospital closures.

“I’m getting a good feel that everybody agrees with the situation and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Merritt had actually prepared its motion on Feb. 1, but it gained additional salience after the ER had temporarily closed on Feb. 9, and again on Feb. 11.

Karen Cooper, Interior Health’s interim executive director, clinical operations for Cariboo/South Cariboo, said IH takes every step to maintain ER service in Merritt.

“(However), if there are staffing shortages unfortunately it requires a temporary change to the availability of services,” Cooper said in a statement dated Feb. 12. We recognize that service interruptions are concerning for Mayor Goetz and the people in Merritt and area. Our CEO Susan Brown will be in touch with Mayor Goetz directly in response to his inquiry.”

Interior Health said in a subsequent statement that it is not its place to speak to taxation discussions between the city and the hospital district.

The motion is the latest back-and-forth between the municipality and health authorities over the Merritt’s ER, following multiple closures in 2023, as well as prior years.

While Merritt’s population of some 7,000 people may render it small, its location at the intersection of Highway 5 and Highway 97 C, connecting Metro Vancouver with the Okanagan, Kamloops and beyond makes it an important stop for services, including medical care. Goetz said temporary ER closures change the community.

“You’re very careful,” he said. “The first thing I say to my family is, ‘don’t do anything crazy, because the (ER) is closed today,’” he said.

When the ER closes in Merritt, local ambulances carry patients to Kamloops and Kelowna, Goetz said.

“So then that means that our fire department becomes a pseudo-ambulance service and that’s out of their job situation,” he said, adding that Merritt will also be sending a bill to the province for those occasions. RCMP involvement can create additional costs as well, he added.

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In October 2023, the provincial government announced $7.5 million in permanent funding to help stabilize physician emergency-room coverage in hospitals for three communities: Merritt, Oliver and Salmon Arm.

The province said the money would help recruit more physicians in rural communities as doctors will be compensated for their time spent at the hospital caring for patients with complex and time-intensive needs. This departs from the fee-for-service payment model under which physicians are paid based primarily on the number of patients they see in a day, government said.

But Goetz wondered in a letter to the health ministry when and how much money will arrive.

“To this point we have not really seen any plan after the announcement,” Goetz said in a letter dated Feb. 12 to Health Minister Adrian Dix.

“There is a sense of anger because people are realizing that their taxes are going to pay for something, but they are not getting it,” Goetz said. “We keep crashing against this windmill and we really don’t get any better.

“But I cannot allow apathy to take us over, where we just shrug our shoulder and go, ‘okay, we will just wait 24 hours and our hospital will be open again. We can’t have that happen.”

When asked about Merritt’s motion at an unrelated event, Premier David Eby did not directly it. Rather, he acknowledged the broader situation, while pointing to steps government is taking.

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“The mayor and I and all British Columbians share the same goal, which is an open, accessible, available health care system for all British Columbians,” Eby said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Merritt or you’re in Prince Rupert or you’re in downtown Vancouver. The challenge that our health care system faces is a serious one. It’s a shortage of the key workers to keep our hospitals open.

“We are in a contest with other provinces for those workers because they’re also facing shortages and the communities that hurt tend to be the smaller, more rural communities hit by closures.”

Eby added that B.C. has a plan to hire more medical staff, create a new medical school and hire internationally-trained health care staff.

“So our work will continue on this,” he said. “I understand the frustration. I understand the anxiety of people who would be looking for care in Merritt, worried about whether or not the emergency room was open. It is a huge priority for us and we’ll continue to support those health professionals to do their best to keep those emergency rooms open for all British Columbians.”

Black Press Media also reached out to the health ministry for additional comment about Goetz’s letter.

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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