BC ELECTION

B.C. political leaders reflect on rural health care as election looms

NDP leader John Horgan, BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson talk rural health care priorities

NDP leader John Horgan campaigned virtually in the Kootenays on Monday, joining four candidates running for ridings in the southeast corner of the province using video-conferencing technology as the Oct. 24 general election looms.

NDP candidates running for Kootenay-East, Columbia River-Revelstoke, Nelson-Creston and Kootenay West joined Horgan on the call, who fielded a number of questions focused on rural health care challenges, wildfire mitigation for communities at risk and tailoring regional COVID-19 strategies for less populated areas of B.C.

Health care, both through the lens of COVID-19 and beyond, is shaping up to be one of the most prominent campaign issues for all three major politicial parties.

Over the last few years, the Kootenay East Regional Hospital District Board has been advocating for the development of a master plan for the East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook. The master plan would map out future expansion and lifespan of the facility over the next decade, as the board is asking Interior Health to examine the feasibility of redeveloping areas such as oncology, pharmacy, microbiology lab and renal dialysis.

“We know this is a high priority, Interior Health has been working on it,” Horgan said. “When the concept plan is ready, it will come to government, we’ll develop a business plan and we’ll proceed from there.”

That master plan was put on hold two years ago as Interior Health suffered through staffing shortages, according to Dean McKerracher, the KERHD board chair, at the time. However, the pharmacy project has moved forward as a standalone $1.4 million budget item, while the other projects remain on the Interior Health priority list.

Horgan acknowledged the challenges of capital funding for rural health care facilities, noting some communities have immediate needs, such as Fort St. James, which has a hospital facility — which also doubles as a seniors care facility — comprised of three Atco trailers.

In addition to competing for capital health care funding, rural communities in the Kootenays and across the province are also facing a shortage of family doctors.

Horgan touted the establishment of urgent primary care networks throughout the province prior to the election, as well as campaign promises to further develop those networks that would bring together family doctors, nurses, health care practitioners to connect with patients to meet their needs.

He also highlighted the importance of physician residencies in rural communities.

“Having residencies in rural B.C. increases the prospect of those doctors staying in communities once they finish their residencies,” Horgan said, “so we want to encourage more people to come out of their med school, get into their residency in rural British Columbia because once you come to the Kootenays…people are going to want to stay there.”

In a separate phone interview, B.C. Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson, also acknowledged the importance of offering a wide range of medical services for local and regional residents at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital.

“As a medical doctor, I can tell you it’s almost impossible to travel long distances for things like renal dialysis and for med[ical] microbiology testing to be done properly,” Wilkinson said.

“So the four outlined areas of oncology, pharmacy, microbiology and dialysis are perfect things to be done in Cranbrook because the next port of call is going to be Lethbridge, Calgary or Kelowna, and that’s simply too far to travel.

“We all know that.”

Wilkinson, who completed a medical degree from the University of Alberta and practiced as a family physician in rural areas of British Columbia many years ago before entering politics, pointed to pledges in the BC Liberal Party platform to train more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.

Similarly to the NDP, the B.C. Liberal Party platform calls for the expansion of primary care networks across the province. Both Horgan and Wilkinson also nodded to the challenges in certification for internationally-trained physicians looking to practice in B.C., particularly in the rural areas.

“We’ve put in the platform that it’s important to expand the access for what is known as international medical graduates,” Wilkinson said. “Whether they’re from Australia, South Africa, U.K. or wherever, we have to make sure they’ve got the ability to get into the system and practice where they’re needed.”

The Townsman has reached out to the B.C. Green Party and Sonia Furstenau for comment.