Rural health care concerns are by far the most prominent topic for residents in the southeast corner of B.C., according to two MLAs who spoke with Regional District of East Kootenay board directors on Friday, Sept. 8.
Columbia River – Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok and Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka both shared the gamut of issues that constituents have been bringing to their respective offices, while also lending their support in advocating RDEK matters to the province during a joint board presentation.
On the health care front, the concerns are many.
Most acute is access to health care in Alberta, as East Kootenay residents are geographically closer to Calgary and Lethbridge as opposed to Kelowna, where there is specialized care, such as radiation therapy for cancer treatment.
“It’s unfair for people in rural B.C. to be travelling 1,000 kilometres over six mountain passes in the dead of winter to get access to health care,” said Tom Shypitka, referencing the challenges of travelling west to Kelowna as opposed to heading east into Alberta.
While some emergency trauma medical services are still provided to BC residents in Alberta, some health care options such as radiation therapy remain closed to BC-based patients in border communities.
Clovechok also noted limited government financial support or reimbursement for Kootenay-based patients who face steep travel and accommodation costs for specialist consultations or procedures in the Okanagan.
Though serving in the opposition ranks as a BC United MLA, Clovechok said he is working on setting up a meeting with Adriana LaGrange, the newly sworn-in Alberta Minister of Health, to discuss the issues around accessing cross-border health care, whether it be cancer treatment or other specialized medical care.
The two MLAs also got an earful about a pending major project at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital Cranbrook.
Sparwood Mayor David Wilks, who also serves as the chair of the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District board, vented his frustration in trying to get the province to include planning for radiation therapy services in a business case that will see a second tower built at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital to house new oncology and renal departments.
Wilks said the current provincial cancer care system is strained, pointing to the province’s recent announcement to send patients to facilities in Washington State for radiation treatment.
“We’re oversubscribed in Kelowna, we’re oversubscribed in Vancouver,” Wilks said. “We have to send patients now to Washington because we can’t service the need that we have. But we’re not willing to even look at the opportunity when we have one staring us in the face here in Cranbrook, with a new tower going to be built for oncology and renal, and not even look at radiation.
“It’s insane why you wouldn’t even at least look at it.”
Interior Health needs additional funding to complete the business case for that second tower. However, the regional hospital district last year approved an additional $100,000, with the condition that it include future radiation therapy services in those plans.
“They won’t even take it. What they’re saying is the province did not authorize to even be able to look at radiation,” Wilks said.
Capital health care infrastructure projects are funded through a 60 per cent cost share from the province and 40 per cent from the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District. Additional funding sources can include corporate donors and fundraising efforts from non-profits such as the East Kootenay Foundation for Health and hospital auxiliaries.
“We’ve got one kick at the cat here,” Wilks continued. “We’re building a new tower, and we got one kick at this, because once it’s built, they won’t look at us. And we’re told that the planning will be done in November and we’re not even a part of it. We’re 40 per cent of the funding and we don’t even get to sit in on the planning. It’s crazy.”
The Cranbrook Townsman has requested an interview with Health Minister Adrian Dix to discuss East Kootenay health care issues.
While health care was a significant presentation point from both Clovechok and Shypitka, other topics included challenges with crown land camping, water issues and the state of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations, as well as universal acclaim for RDEK staff, firefighters and BC’s emergencies minister Bowinn Ma for the management and response to this year’s devastating wildfire season.
Shypitka, who also served as deputy chair of the all-party Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, spoke about the feedback the committee heard for the 2024 budget consultations — including local presentations — and the recommendations that came out of that process.