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Baldrey: B.C. health care’s troubles become top-priority political issue

Spike in sick days booked by health care workers highlights system’s fraying edges as BC Liberals, Greens ramp up pressure on government.
B.C.'s health care system has become a top-priority political issue. | ipopba/iStock/Getty Images Plus

B.C.’s health care system is either frayed around the edges, in a state of near-collapse or continuing to provide exemplary care -- depending on one’s experience in it.

Last week, I received a number of calls from listeners on CKNW who either expressed heartfelt thanks for the treatment they had recently received or relayed sorrowful tales of woe involving themselves or family members who did not get the treatment they needed.

Emergency rooms continue to shut down on weekends in some small B.C. towns, while the significant shortage of family doctors is starting to have an increasingly negative impact on peoples’ health. Doctors and nurses are saying they have never seen the system sag so badly under this kind of weight.

Politically, the BC Liberals have seized on the mounting pile of problems and have apparently made health care criticism their No. 1 issue, zeroing in on Health Minister Adrian Dix for special attention.

The Opposition even demanded that Dix be fired from his job. I can’t recall the last time the Opposition (be it BC Liberal or NDP) demanded a minister’s head, which is something more reminiscent of the 1980s than recent times.

While the firing demand may have been an overreach, the BC Liberals did release a 30-day plan that contained some good ideas, although implementing them may prove to be difficult.

Increasing compensation for doctors to cover rising overhead costs, updating the fee-for-service model, reducing redundant paperwork for physicians and accelerating accreditation for foreign-trained professionals are all proposals that have been pitched in the past (the government seems to be working to implement some of them, although clearly not fast enough).

The two-member BC Green caucus, for its part, is on a speaking tour of B.C. to talk about health care fixes they are proposing,

In short, health care has returned as a top-of-mind issue for many British Columbians, rivalling the seemingly unsolvable affordability issue as the dominant one.

More people are now trying to access the health care system than at any point in the pandemic (during which many people simply stopped seeking treatment).

And while our system is now performing record-high numbers of surgeries, a human resources problem appears to be bedeviling the system in ways never seen before this year.

Since the start of this year (which is about when negative anecdotes about the system’s troubles began surfacing), the number of health care professionals who have booked off sick has increased by the thousands compared to previous times.

In mid-July, the number of health care workers who booked sick time in the previous week approached almost 16,000.

That compares with about 11,000 a week in the three months preceding the pandemic and similar numbers last year. When about 5,000 fewer people are working in the system at any given time that is a recipe for chaos in many parts of the system.

Indeed, those absences (many likely linked to cases of COVID-19 or linked to burnout-related issues) are behind the closures of small town ERs and such.

Changes are likely coming to the health care system (this is a national crisis, not one confined to this province alone) but they aren’t coming fast enough for many.

Thousands get the treatment they require from our health care system every day, but those frayed edges and near-collapses in some areas will continue for some time.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC