Skip to content

Radiation therapy options for rural patients remains limited: BC United

Cancer care in Alberta remains inaccessible for patients living in B.C. border communities

Sending patients needing cancer care treatment to Alberta health care facilities is not an option, despite the B.C. government’s recent agreement with two facilities south of Vancouver in the United States that will provide radiation therapy services to compensate for a provincial system stretched to capacity.

But for patients in communities bordering Alberta, heading east to Calgary and Lethbridge for those cancer care services remains inaccessible, according to B.C.’s health ministry.

In a statement, a ministry spokesperson noted Alberta and other provinces are dealing with their own capacity needs, or are already assisting other provinces, specifically citing patients from Newfoundland and Labrador accessing radiation therapy services in Toronto.

Tom Shypitka and Doug Clovechok, two BC United MLAs representing Kootenay-based ridings, took the provincial government to task for failing to consider impacts and solutions for rural patients, according to a news release.

”No matter where you live in B.C., you deserve equal access to cancer care. Unfortunately, that is not always that reality for British Columbians who live outside large urban centres,” said Clovechok. “While it’s encouraging to see government taking dramatic steps to get people the treatment they need, it’s distressing they’ve let the situation get this dire. It’s also confusing for people — including some of my constituents — who have been denied access to cancer care in Alberta because this government won’t cover out-of-province treatment.

“Why is the NDP comfortable sending British Columbians to get care in another country when they won’t let them get treatment in a neighbouring province, which is often much closer than the nearest B.C. cancer centre? People deserve clarity from this government and assurances they will get the care they desperately need.”

An Alberta government spokesperson confirmed there has been “no conversations on this issue to date” between the two provinces regarding B.C.-based patients accessing radiation therapy services in Alberta.

READ: B.C. to send cancer patients to Bellingham for radiation treatment to curb wait times

B.C.’s new plan to send up to 50 patients a week to two Bellingham facilities in Washington State was announced this week (May 15), in an effort to reduce wait times and build future capacity, according to health minister Adrian Dix.

“Health care in B.C. has always been about one key commitment: getting patients the care they need, when they need it,” said Adrian Dix, Minister of Health. “To ensure every effort is being made to get cancer patients the treatment they need, we are temporarily referring patients to clinics across the border. This immediate action will support patients while we expand cancer services and hire more cancer care staff throughout the province.”

The provincial government is anticipating 4,800 patients will benefit from the arrangement over the next two years, which is billed as a temporary program. It will initially be eligible to breast cancer and prostate cancer patients.

Costs fully covered for patients travelling to those facilities include travel, flight, car rental, accommodation, meals, lab and medical imaging testing, prescription drugs, and more, as well as some costs incurred by an accompanying caregiver.

In 2021, more than 30,000 people in B.C. were newly diagnosed with cancer, according to the province.

In the meantime, the province is touting the recruitment of 350 full-time equivalent positions for physicians and clinical staff for cancer care in B.C. as well as over $1 billion in investments into the cancer care system since 2017.

There are currently six regional cancer care centres across B.C. that provide radiation therapy services. The province notes that work is underway to open new cancer centres in Burnaby and Surrey, while a long-promised facility in Kamloops remains mired in the design stage.

Closer to Cranbrook, a new oncology and renal department is being planned for the East Kootenay Regional Hospital — a project that will require a new building after initial plans to build a second floor on top of the ICU building were scrapped.

Local officials are pressing the province to include radiation therapy services in the planning process, especially since the project could potentially accommodate radiation therapy infrastructure, even if the services aren’t immediately made available upon the new building’s completion.

The Kootenay East Regional Hospital District Board recently turned down an Interior Health request for $50,000 in additional funding for the oncology and renal business plan, however, there is an extra $100,000 available earmarked specifically for radiation therapy planning, through a bylaw passed by the board last year, that Interior Health can access.

The matter was discussed during a recent hospital board meeting in Cranbrook on May 12.

Susan Brown, the President and CEO of Interior Health, has been in consultation with the assistant deputy minister with the health ministry regarding radiation therapy at EKRH, according to Board Chair David Wilks.

“She will be getting back to me and we’ll see where that goes,” Wilks told the board.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
Read more