COLUMN: Health care on life support

  - Leader file photo
— image credit: Leader file photo

A recent review of Fraser Health Authority concluded that people in the region it serves rely on hospital care too much – particularly emergency services, but also in situations where people are required to wait in hospital for a long-term care bed.

The provincial government response is to work towards setting up more clinics which would take the place of emergency rooms, and to reallocate funds within the FHA budget for non-acute care. However, Health Minister Terry Lake also said FHA should be able to manage within its budget. That budget is set to rise 4.3 per cent this year, 1.4 percent in 2015 and 1.2 per cent in 2016.

FHA is the largest and fastest-growing health region in B.C. It has 36 per cent of the provincial population, but gets 28 per cent of the health care funding. While FHA residents are able to take advantage of specialty health services in the adjacent Vancouver Coastal region, most of their health needs are taken care of within FHA. A strong case can be made that FHA has been systematically underfunded by the province, and such underfunding long predates the creation of FHA and the earlier South Fraser Health Region.

Thus saying that FHA can manage within its budget and allocating small annual increases fails to take into account the historical under-servicing of Surrey, Delta, White Rock and other FHA communities by the province, which is responsible for health care.

The health needs within Surrey are growing dramatically, which isn’t surprising. The population is growing very rapidly, but no one, at Surrey City Hall or in Victoria, is trying to reduce population growth in order to manage the health care budget more effectively.

Instead, the province prefers to let the well run dry, rather than take the step of allocating significantly more funds to the health region to deal with population growth.

When this fiscal approach is combined with historical under-servicing, the result is crisis after crisis. This is particularly true at Surrey Memorial Hospital - even after the recent expansion project was completed.

Historically, SMH has only been expanded long after patients were bursting out of the door. The hospital didn’t even open until 1958, about 12 years after Surrey began to boom from post-war population expansion. Expansions, including the most recent one, have been welcome but always come too late.

The province’s fixation on a balanced budget (it has just reported a $353 million surplus for 2013-14) shows prudent fiscal management, but this fixation has come at the expense of some services. Health care, by far the biggest budget item for the province, has its spending growth capped.

The education system is in the midst of a teachers’ strike that, at its heart, is all about money, and even in fast-growing Surrey, the school district cannot get approval to build new schools in areas where there are already the children to fill them.

Health Minister Lake needs to stand up for this region more forcefully in cabinet, because the health care needs here are not being fully met from the existing budget. It is important to keep acute care for patients who are most in need of hospitalization, and to reduce reliance on emergency room care, but all that requires money as well as reallocation of resources.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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