Rural B.C. mayors threaten to withhold tax dollars if health-care concerns not heard

Rural B.C. mayors are fed up with slow ambulance responses and persistent emergency room closures have formed a task force to push for better health services.

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who has been sounding the alarm all summer about closures at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital’s emergency department, said the rural mayors want to work cooperatively with health authorities and the Ministry of Health to come up with solutions to the health-care staffing crisis.

But if they continue to be shut out of the conversation, holding back taxes could be an option that gets the province’s attention.

“The one large tool that we do have, that one hammer, is holding back on submitting taxation to the province and the health authorities until they really come to the table and listen to us,” Blackwell told Postmedia on Wednesday.

“We want to be listened to. We really want a proper seat at the table so that we’re not just rubber-stamping the needs of hospitals and hospital boards who are not coming to the table for a two-way conversation.”

Last week, an infant in Barriere went into cardiac arrest while the closest ambulance was 64 kilometres away in Kamloops. In July and August, two seniors in Ashcroft went into cardiac arrest and died while waiting almost half an hour for paramedics to arrive. Both seniors were in medical distress in the same block as the ambulance station.

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman agreed that mayors in the Interior, who sit on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, could withhold the district’s 40-per-cent share of capital costs from the health authority.

Ackerman admits that would be unprecedented, but “there’s no precedent for anything in this conversation because our health care has never been this bad. We’ve not withheld funds before, but we’ve never had a reason to.”

Blackwell said mayors can step in and use their community contacts to help the health authorities recruit staff, which is often stymied by a shortage in housing and daycare spaces.

If, for example, Interior Health told Blackwell a nurse or doctor recruited to work in Clearwater was having problems finding housing, he could put out a plea on social media to find available rentals. He could also use community connections to help the family find daycare for their kids, Blackwell said.

“We don’t have the money to solve the problems, but we’re able to leverage support from the community, whether it be a house for these people to live in or a daycare spot.”

That on-the-ground perspective that local politicians have, Blackwell said, is a key resource being overlooked by Health Minister Adrian Dix and other health authorities.

Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden said rural mayors have been speaking out about how inadequate health-care services are putting their residents at risk, but their voices are stronger together and underscore their shared problems.

“We’ve all been sort of sounding the alarm for years, and now that it’s kind of taking tragic turns and hitting larger communities, suddenly more people seem to be taking notice,” she said.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., applauds the rural mayors for banding together to push for better health-care services.

“Why is everybody working in silos?” he asked. “There’s a lot of opportunities to work with local governments. It might not be under their mandate, but it overlaps into their jurisdiction and it affects their everyday communities.”

B.C. Emergency Health Services has said it has added 500 full- and part-time paramedic positions in rural and remote communities since 2021, but a quarter of those positions remain vacant.

But Clifford said some of those full- and part-time jobs were filled by paramedics previously working in casual “on-call” positions, thereby leaving many on-call positions vacant. That means there is nobody to backfill when full- and part-time paramedics are sick or on vacation.

“That’s hurt our coverage in a lot of the communities that were already covering our secondary (ambulance) unit,” Clifford said. “We haven’t backfilled those positions, so that’s the additional vacancies we’re talking about.”

B.C. Emergency Health Services confirmed that on-call positions remain vacant as part of the shift to full-time positions.

”In many of the rural and remote communities where new, permanent positions were created, the vast majority of the paramedic shifts were being staffed on an on-call basis,” the ambulance service said in a statement.

“Some of our staffing challenges have been from vacancies as a result of casual on-call staff movement with new positions being created. We’ve also experienced staff illness, due to a variety of reasons, including COVID-19 and mental health.”

Of the 4,500 unionized paramedics, there are currently 750 vacant positions, Clifford said. That does not include on-call paramedics who get paid $2 an hour while they are waiting for a call and are paid a full wage when they are dispatched.

B.C. Emergency Health Services is conducting reviews into the response times in Ashcroft and Barriere. However, those reviews will not be made public because of patient confidentiality.