VICTORIA — B.C. news organizations were invited to Vancouver General Hospital this week for what was billed as a “historic announcement” on increased federal funding for the provincial health care system.
It could have been historic, had Ottawa met the province even halfway on its call for the federal government to significantly increase its share of funding for the mostly-paid-by-the-province health care system.
Instead, federal Health Minister Mark Holland announced a relatively small amount of new money and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix accepted it.
The amount, $1.2 billion, might seem like a lot. But it has to be put into perspective.
First, the money is spread over three years. B.C. is getting $400 million for one year, about one per cent on an annual health care budget approaching $29 billion.
Second, B.C. along with the other provinces, has been asking Ottawa to increase its share of health care funding from the current 22 per cent to 35 per cent.
On that calculation, the province would have been in line for an increase of, not $400 million, but almost $4 billion a year.
Then, too, the money came with strings attached, in keeping with Ottawa’s insistence that new money go to new purposes.
About $80 million of the first $400 million is ticketed to improve mental health and addictions services.
A further $200 million will help fund B.C.’s commitment to improve nurse-to-patient ratios in acute care wards and emergency departments.
Other priorities include more funding for the First Nations Health Authority and to improve access to electronic health information.
By default, it also means that none of the new money will address the current crisis in emergency rooms. The emergency room in Merritt has closed 15 times in 10 months, according to Mayor Michael Gaetz.
“Let me acknowledge that absolutely, money alone — we’re not holding this out as a panacea,” Holland said Tuesday, when asked about the ER closures.
“We need to work collaboratively when we’re talking about our immigration system or when we’re talking about those that are responsible for credential recognition to make sure that we reimagine things in a way that opens up our potential.”
His provincial counterpart, Dix, responded with his perspective on the staffing challenges.
“We had an increase of 38,000 workers, net new, since I’ve been minister of health,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I ask people ‘does it feel like 38,000?’ Everyone says, ‘no, it doesn’t feel like 38,000, doesn’t feel close to that.’”
What is to be done? The province needs to repeat those same hiring and recruitment targets over the next five years, just to keep up with demand from a growing and aging population.
Dix calls the escalating demand for services “the new normal” in health care, a comment that has been construed as his acceptance of a permanent state of crisis. He sees it as a justification for continuing the government’s ambitious and well-financed training and recruitment drive.
On that score, Premier David Eby presided Tuesday over an online discussion on the effort to expedite recognition of foreign credentials in health care and other professions.
There were testimonials from foreign practitioners who’ve navigated the bureaucratic nightmare that is the current credentialing system.
Those who logged on heard from the dentist who has spent three years and $50,000 and still awaits final approval to practise here in B.C.
Or there was the story of the immigrant from Hong Kong, with a master’s degree in social work from the London School of Economics, who was forced to take an English proficiency test every year while his application was in process.
He’d say, “look my English hasn’t gotten any worse since I’ve been living here,” the premier was told. “The message he was receiving is ‘you don’t want me in this profession.’”
After listening to several horror stories, Eby assured the applicants that their services are greatly needed here in B.C. and thanked them for their extraordinary patience.
The New Democrats will be introducing legislation later this month to expedite the approval process for doctors, nurses and other immigrant professionals.
But as Eby readily conceded, there are other obstacles to approval of foreign credentials.
“It has been slower than I would like with the College of Physicians,” he said. “We’re working with them to try to find ways to pick up the pace and get more of those doctors recognized.”
Ottawa has a say in the approval process, as do some national level professional associations. No wonder some participants joke that the collective motto of the country’s approval process is “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Things may be looking up.
At a meeting with his provincial counterparts in Prince Edward Island Thursday, Holland promised that Ottawa will “make it easier for foreign trained health workers to immigrate to and obtain residency in Canada.”
Coupled with Eby’s promise of provincial legislation, the approval process for foreign medical professionals and others could be easing, come the new year.
But given the bureaucratic and jurisdictional challenges, believe it when you see it.
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