Six times in the first 10 days of September, the emergency room at the South Okanagan General Hospital (SOGH) in Oliver, B.C., has been closed.
The closures have become more frequent, the most recent being Wednesday overnight. Interior Health stated that each temporary closure was due to limited physician availability.
Global News reached out to Interior Health but was informed no one was available for comment Wednesday.
“I think they’ve come to a head here. Early … in July is when I started hearing about the significant amount of closures, uncovered shifts — there’s a continuing challenge with staffing the ER here,” said Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen.
“Three nighttime, which we had before, but three daytime is something we’ve never ever seen before. And we’ve just gone through two full days of ER closure, Monday and Tuesday day. So, it’s just unacceptable and we really need to put our heads together and try and come to a solution to this problem.”
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Johansen says health care in the South Okanagan has reached its tipping point.
Without an ER in Oliver, area residents are forced to travel up to an hour for health care. This is especially challenging during the summer months as the population more than doubles.
“When you look at the catchment area for South Okanagan General Hospital, from the east it goes to Bridesville, to the west on Highway 3 it goes to Nighthawk, and to the North it’s Gallagher Lake,” said Johansen.
“There’s a normal population in this area of around 18,000 but swells to 40,000 and suddenly there’s no hospital. That’s an over an hour trip by ambulance to Penticton Regional Hospital, and that’s from Oliver, not from Bridesville or Nighthawk or Osoyoos. We’ve really got a challenge going on here.”
The mayor believes that although there is no silver bullet to fix the problem there are things that can be done to stabilize the issue.
One solution that has been put forward to doctors and has since been put forward to the Ministry of Health, as well, is moving to a contract system and alternative payment program (APP).
“The payment model that we have at the South Okanagan General Hospital is a fee for service. And that just is an antiquated way of dealing with physicians in being able to fill their time, especially in an older community,” he said.
“To work a night shift where you might see two patients make $100, it doesn’t make any sense. And that thing has just been percolating and percolating for a while where the doctors have finally said we need to get this alternative payment program in place.
“Younger doctors like to have contracts for service, they like to have a premium, they like to know what they’re making.”
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The mayor recently had a conversation with Health Minister Adrian Dix about the issues at SOGH, and the minister has reportedly committed to reviewing the proposal by the end of the month.
Global News reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment, but did not receive a response.
“We talked about what’s going on here and what needs to be done,” Johansen added. “It is clear that he sees this as a priority, and this is something that needs to be taken care of.”
Johansen plans to meet with the health minister next week at the UBCM to talk more about possible solutions.
“We need to do something now, and I think the APP is a way to start that. There are other things that can be done here. We need to look at the rural locum program right now; Oliver doesn’t have access to the rural open program,” said Johansen.
“The other thing that we lost here a while ago was a nurse loan forgiveness program. I’ve got a meeting with the Minister of Post Secondary Education and Future Skills to talk about that.”
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