Man standing behind podium looks over to the side. A staff member, wering a COVID mask, stands behind him.

B.C. health minister announces $30 million to address health-care crisis in North Island

National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a $30-million infusion to tackle the health-care crisis in North Island communities.

The money, a mix of one-time capital investments and operating funding, will drive a range of measures to immediately stabilize health-care services across the region and in the communities of Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Alert Bay, Dix said Friday.

The funding won’t immediately reverse current overnight emergency room closures in Port Hardy and the ferry-dependent community of Alert Bay, but daytime operations will continue, he said.

Moving forward, alternating or unplanned closures between the various ERs will cease — with the Port McNeill Hospital ER operating around the clock until the medical staffing crisis at other locations is resolved.

“These set hours will ensure patients and families know where and when emergency services are available to them,” he said.

The minister insisted a return to 24/7 service in all three emergency rooms is the goal, but he declined to say when that could be expected.

“We believe in these three hospitals, and we believe that they have a powerful future, and we are investing in that future,” Dix said.

Upgrades are planned at both the Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals with improvements to ERs, trauma and maternity units and nurses’ stations.

“We’re acting today to ensure that people know the services will be there when they need them, and to make investments so that services improve in the months and years to come.”

New staff recruitment and retention incentives include travel wage increases, upgraded accommodations for temporary medical staff working in the region and hiring more security officers to improve safety at health facilities.

For example, regional staff who travel elsewhere to fill local shifts will get time and a half for hours worked in addition to mileage and meal expenses.

Island Health will establish daily shuttle services between Port Hardy and Port McNeill hospitals for patients and staff, as well as daily shuttles south to larger health-care service hubs in Campbell River and the Comox Valley. A new mobile CT scanner will arrive, and core staff at the Port Hardy Hospital will increase.

Port Hardy doctor Alex Nataros, who expects to be the last physician on staff at the local ER come July, was pleased by the new supports promised by the province, particularly those that improved morale and working conditions for nurses.

“They’re the cornerstone of our health-care system, so whatever we can do to support nursing colleagues, the better,” he said.

Island Health will also create new 24/7 mental health and substance use services, such as additional sobering and assessment centre beds along with four more long-term care beds at the Port Hardy Hospital.

The changes will likely ease pressure on the emergency room, Nataros said.

But they don’t deal with the acute staffing gaps, he said, adding he’s urged the province to allow him to hire physician assistants, licensed elsewhere in Canada, in a pilot project to expand medical care in the community.

The new measures, services and equipment are welcome, but staff still need to be on hand to use them, he said.

“It’s kind of like buying airplanes without hiring pilots.”

Top image credit: B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a $30-million cash infusion on Friday to help stabilize the regional health-care crisis on north Vancouver Island. File photo / B.C. government – Photo by Felipe Fittipaldi / B.C. government

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced a $30-million cash infusion on Friday to help stabilize the regional health-care crisis on north Vancouver Island. File photo / B.C. government

Felipe Fittipaldi / B.C. government