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Poaching, profiting, forced moves: Realities of 'inequitable' healthcare in Northern B.C.

The exterior of the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George is seen here in an undated file photo. (Northern Health) The exterior of the University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George is seen here in an undated file photo. (Northern Health)
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There are various numbers and statistics to quantify how short-staffed the health-care system is in Northern, B.C. but it’s the toll on British Columbians that shows just how dire the situation is.

Some drive hours for routine medical tests, others must gauge the next closest hospital when faced with a temporary closure of their community’s emergency department, patients completing their second trimester of pregnancy in the most remote areas must relocate to larger towns in order to safely deliver their babies.

“I want people to understand there are real barriers to equitable health in this province,” said Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. “In Fort Nelson we do have a hospital and it is staffed fairly well, but the services that are offered here are less than adequate.“

He’s renewing calls for an audit of the Northern Health Authority, which has a whopping 20 per cent staffing vacancy rate, and has faced a rash of resignations of doctors, and allegations of workplace toxicity.

“You're just training new workers and bringing them in to a toxic situation where they're there 18 months and they're gone, so it's just a revolving door and it's frustrating,” said Fraser. “The system is seriously broken and until we really understand the problem, we can't fix it.”

COMMUNITIES POACHING AS CONTRACTORS INCREASE

Nearly six months after CTV News asked for comprehensive statistics, Northern Health has finally provided data on how reliant the health authority has become on private for-profit companies that provide health-care workers on contracts, paying up to twice what a nurse would make in a union job. 

In the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, it spent around $11.5 million dollars each year, but so far in 2022 it has spent $37.7 million on agency nurses, technicians and other allied healthcare workers. The five-year total is at least $105 million. Every other health authority combined spent at least $102 million in that time on private staffing to keep public health-care facilities running. 

“It's starting to become bleak in a lot of these communities,” said Cori Ramsay, a city councillor in Prince George who’s also involved with the North Central Local Government Association.

“Some of them are offering $40,000 signing bonuses to come to their communities to be a nurse or to be a doctor and we're starting to see this community competitiveness that I think is incredibly unhealthy and will create a lot of problems down the road.”

Ramsay herself has just lost her family doctor, along with 4,000 other residents in her city, who aren’t seeing any improvements despite what she knows are massive provincial investments in health care. 

“We're seeing a mass exodus of health-care professionals,” she said. “I don't know how we're going to find our way out of this other than to completely revitalize our medical system, because the current structure in place is not making any sense.”

NORTHERN HEALTH RESPONDS

Northern Health’s regional director or recruitment said they’ve been focussed on doing whatever it takes to provide “continuity of care” by keeping emergency departments and other serves open, citing World Health Organization statistics that remote locations typically have double the job vacancy rates as other areas. 

“(Staffing shortages are) something that we're seeing around the globe and are particularly hard-hit in those northern, rural and remote communities,” said Sandra Rossi.

She said the health authority has “stabilized” staffing in many communities with incentives for staff to move to under-served areas, and a travel program that covers the room and board of nurses willing to work in smaller towns and villages for at least two months. Rossi also emphasized that they use agency staffing only as a last resort, insisting “we're always trying to hire as many permanent fulltime staff as we can.”

When CTV News asked whether the high staff turnover, job vacancy rate, and allegations of workplace toxicity played a role in their staffing problems, she pivoted to talking about strategies to retain staff with more work-life balance, including housing and childcare support.

“That wouldn't be something I want to comment on, I don't know that I would have an idea of toxicity,” said Rossi. “I know that every workplace has pockets of that.”

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