PORT McNEILL — Vancouver Island Health Authority has responded to demand from North Island residents and vows to have round-the-clock coverage of the Port Hardy Hospital emergency room by this time next year.
Howard Waldner, VIHA president and CEO, made the announcement Wednesay to an audience at an open forum that followed the Mount Waddington Health Network’s meeting on homelessness and social housing at the local community centre.
Waldner described a Local Working Group, a collaborative working model involving Port Hardy’s physicians, nurses and VIHA managers. It will include the use of a new office facility, either built or leased, from which all the participants will work.
“The VIHA board and Port Hardy clinicians came up with a model they felt was doable and sustainable, and will provide 24/7/365 emergency room coverage at Port Hardy Hospital,” said Waldner, who was flanked by members of the board of directors and other VIHA administrators as he addressed several dozen local participants.
“The local work group will be an amalgamation of all providers and services, under one roof.”
A short-term agreement was also struck with Port Hardy physicians that will ensure no closures at the Port Hardy Hospital ER between now and the Christmas holiday season, Waldner said. This coverage will involve local practitioners and, when necessary, temporary visiting locum support.
The agreement was struck one night earlier, during VIHA’s regular Board of Directors meeting, also held in Port McNeill. The board and top executives spent the better part of last week touring their facilities and meeting with employees and contractors on the North Island.
At that meeting, Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham presented the directors with several letters and a petition with 1,700 signatures demanding an end to recurring ER closures at Port Hardy Hospital.
Under the current system, emergency room coverage is provided by independent practitioners who are compensated through the Medical On-Call Availability Program (MOCAP), a 10-year-old provincial program established by the province and the B.C. Medical Association. But gaps in the coverage have left the hospital ER insufficiently staffed to open on some days, and frustrations boiled over during a public meeting held in Port Hardy one week before the arrival of the VIHA directors.
“So many people in our community do not have access to a physician, and that’s one reason people are using the ER as a first stop for health care service,” Parnham said. “And it’s not just the physicians. We need to look at hiring nurse practitioners and we need to take clerical work off of our nurses’ plates. Hopefully, money from the province should help that.”
The new collaborative agreement will allow the work group to apply for up to $200,000 from the Ministry of Health through a $10 million emergency care plan for rural communities.
One of the requirements for applying for the funding is the establishment of a working agreement between providers and health authorities to provide full coverage of emergency services, something Port Hardy’s providers had not done.
“With our plan, Port Hardy physicians will be able to apply for that funding,” Waldner said. “Port McNeill physicians have applied, and have received those funds.”
A few participants at the meeting used the access to the directors and administrators to vent or introduce personal difficulties they have had in health-care dealings. Others lobbied for expanded service on the North Island to limit trips down-Island to see specialists or receive certain treatments.
“If you need certain treatments, you’re going to have to travel; that’s the reality,” Waldner said. “When the hospitals open in Campbell River and Comox that will provide more access and more complex treatments with less travel time for North Islanders.
“But there still will be the need to travel to Victoria on occasion. It’s a problem of manpower. There are only a few specialist, and they need to be concentrated in population centres.”