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opinion

When we last left John Horgan and his province’s health care problems, B.C.’s Premier was dropping an f-bomb in the legislature in frustration.

That was a few weeks ago. Things haven’t improved much since.

This is a story to watch in Canada, as B.C.’s primary care system finds itself “teetering” – Mr. Horgan’s word, not mine – on the verge of calamity. If that seems too strong a word, consider some of the things that have happened recently.

There has been a wave of resignations among health care workers in northern B.C., including half of the doctors in the intensive care units of the area’s biggest hospitals. These physicians tendered their resignations in a display of frustration over how overworked and understaffed hospitals in the region are.

There is already a well-documented doctor shortage, not just in the north but virtually everywhere in the province. More than a million British Columbians are without a family physician, with tens of thousands of new people pouring into the province each year, exacerbating the problem.

This has put Health Minister Adrian Dix in the spotlight and led to some tense exchanges this week in the legislature, the same legislature where his boss, Mr. Horgan, dropped an expletive in response to heckling from the Opposition benches. The Premier has been blaming the whole mess on a lack of resources, and has been pressuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cough up more money for the provinces for health care funding.

The provincial government has put aside $6-million toward the hiring of more health care workers for the northern region of the province alone. Mr. Dix has also said the government is funding 600 new nursing positions at provincial universities, with particular focus on filling urgent needs in the north and Interior. But the reality is that there is a nursing shortage throughout B.C.

Last week, there were 16,000 health care workers off sick, with the greatest percentage in the northern and Interior parts of the province. Many of those have refused to go to work for fear of catching COVID-19. However, many are simply burnt out after two years of the pandemic.

Nursing is a tough enough job as it is. Throw in a pandemic and the abuse many health professionals have faced in the last two years and it’s left many wondering if this is really the job for them. Many doctors are asking themselves the same question.

It’s a mess.

And it represents a huge political problem for the Horgan government – a genuine crisis for which there is no easy fix.

Mr. Dix says the province has added 30,000 health care workers to the system in the last five years. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon disputes that number, saying Statistics Canada figures show there were 10,084 fewer health care workers at provincial hospitals in February of this year, compared to the summer of 2017.

Mr. Dix’s office says Mr. Falcon’s numbers don’t reflect changing job classifications, yada, yada.

The dispute over numbers doesn’t change the on-the-ground realities. The province has seen emergency departments forced to close because of staffing shortages. B.C. has the longest average wait times in the country for walk-in clinics, which are increasingly relied upon by people who don’t have a family doctor. Currently, that wait-time average in B.C. is 58 minutes. In Victoria, it’s 161 minutes. The average in Canada is 25 minutes.

The government has had problems recruiting health care workers because of the high cost of living, especially in Greater Vancouver. Yes, the climate can be swell but you’ll likely never own a home and rents are obscenely high. Not exactly something you want to put on a recruitment poster.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the government, as this problem is years in the making. Mr. Dix’s ministry has established 27 urgent and primary care centres in the province since coming to power in 2017. It’s likely the largest investment of money into this area of the health care system ever. And yet things still seem to be at a crisis level.

And it’s not something that can be quickly fixed.

It takes years to educate and train a nurse. It takes even longer to educate and train a doctor. It doesn’t help that many people going into medicine are opting out of becoming a family physician because, frankly, they can make far more money in other areas of health care.

With the pandemic slowly receding, the B.C. government is facing a dilemma that is just as – if not more – vexing than a once-in-a-hundred-year virus.

And the health care crisis in the province is likely to be around much, much longer.

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