Bursting Bubbles

Columnist Richard Rolke questions the delayed decision on acute care beds at Vernon Jubilee Hospital

It’s increasingly evident that disgruntled North Okanagan residents are sending ripples through the halls of the B.C. Legislature.

On Oct. 7, communications staff rang me up to say that Health Minister Michael de Jong wanted to talk to me Tuesday. While appreciative of the opportunity, it was surprising because the number of times a cabinet minister has actually asked to speak to me over 21 years is zero.

What prompted de Jong to break with tradition is he was trying to ensure there aren’t false expectations among residents and the media when he attends the official opening of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital tower Thursday. He wanted to be clear that there will be no formal announcement about funds for acute care beds.

“We are making progress and identifying ways to address capacity issues,” he said, adding that a decision will likely occur early in 2012.

“It’s a case of trying to find money when it’s scarce and there are competing needs across the province.”

Reporters, physicians and some community leaders have speculated that funds for completing the two shelled-in floors in the tower would coincide with the ribbon-cutting. There have also been some concerns among Interior Health Authority officials that large crowds may converge to demand immediate action, undermining the celebration of the new facility.

De Jong’s call Tuesday was a preemptive strike to try and cut the angry troops off at the pass.

However, as much as de Jong would like to avoid residents or questions from the media, a five-minute phone chat won’t send them off course.

North Okanagan residents will continue to press MLAs Eric Foster and George Abbott until a decision — and particularly a positive one — is made. And the furor may escalate given that available beds were insufficient just days after the $180 million tower being seeing patients.

“There are still patients housed in makeshift wards like MASH units, crowded into small rooms and alcoves,” said Dr. Chris Cunningham, a vocal proponent of more beds.

“This is indecent to continue to care for patients in this way.”

It’s anticipated conditions could get worse.

“(There’s  been) a summer of OR slowdowns pending the new move, so all of the surgeons have a backlog already. I am expecting a tidal wave of new cancer consults when the surgeons can get their patients in,” said Dr. Ed Hardy, an oncologist.

If de Jong and IHA officials want to cut ribbons and pat each other on the back Thursday, that is fine because the new tower is a wonderful boost to local health care. However, they can’t keep avoiding the reality that the tower is not the be-all-and-end-all. More must be done.

And while de Jong is right about B.C.’s financial challenges, doing what is necessary for the public can’t be cast aside forever. Patients can’t be allowed to languish in hallways or have surgeries cancelled simply because of the recession. If we wait for the economy to recover, we could wait forever.

Instead of bursting the bubble of residents over an announcement and providing an undetermined date in the new year, de Jong needs to address the crisis now and that means guaranteeing funding.