Vancouver Sun Article

Vaughn Palmer: Health agency denies blame for B.C. Ambulance Service fiasco, attacks critics

Opinion: It is incredible that leaders use term ‘any failures,’ even as minister overhaul a service that failed British Columbians

VICTORIA — Health Minister Adrian Dix’s belated but ambitious makeover of B.C. Emergency Health Services should not be interpreted as a criticism of anyone in the system, say leaders of the overseer Provincial Health Services Authority.

“Today’s announcement is intended to focus on strengthening the foundation of emergency health services so that we can improve service to patients and communities and the day-to-day work experience of our employees,” said authority interim president David Byres and executive vice-president Susan Wannamaker in a letter to staff Wednesday, the same day as Dix announced the changes to B.C. ambulance service.

Byres and Wannamaker went on to discount the possibility that the moves were the result of a blame-placing exercise.

“It is important to recognize that any failures that occurred were not the fault of any one person or group of leaders,” they wrote in the two-page memorandum obtained by reporter Jordan Armstrong of Global TV.

“ANY failures that occurred?”

It’s incredible that authority leaders would put it that way.

People were forced to wait hours for ambulances to arrive during the recent heat wave. Police and firefighters took people to hospital because ambulances didn’t show up.

Paramedics were themselves in distress, overwhelmed by calls for help from people at the brink.

Even the beleaguered chief operating officer of B.C. Emergency Health Services, Darlene MacKinnon — targeted in a petition calling for her resignation — had to admit there were failures.

“I think we have done a very good job in the response,” she insisted in a July 1 interview, after Global TV reported that her agency did not activate its round-the-clock emergency co-ordination centre until June 29, after the heat wave peaked.

But when pressed about testimonials — from families and first responders — that people in life-threatening situations waited hours for an ambulance, MacKinnon conceded: “We know that some of these people have waited too long for our response and we sympathize and we apologize for that.”

Still, Byres and Wannamaker weren’t about to hold her or anyone else to account for the debacle.

The only finger pointing in their memorandum was aimed at critics of the service.

“We have all watched events unfold on social media recently in which chief operating officer Darlene MacKinnon and other senior leaders were targeted and subjected to personal attacks,” they wrote. “This type of abuse and bullying has no place in our organization or society.”

Granted, it does not. But, in addition to the mostly anonymous abuse online, MacKinnon and emergency services were subjected to pointed criticisms from named individuals, including those with a stake in the system and families who described in grim detail how it had failed them.

Instead of acknowledging the validity of those criticisms, the Provincial Health Services Authority insinuated that the critics really didn’t understand how “there were many factors and shortages within the complex systems in health care” that B.C. Emergency Health Services is part of.

The memorandum did express sympathy for front-line staffers: “We know many of you have expressed anger, sadness and frustration about the recent challenges in delivering services to our patients. We appreciate that this has damaged feelings of pride about the organization, and we are truly sorry for that.”

Far from agreeing with calls for MacKinnon’s head, the authority leaders declared support for her and her entire team: The “leadership team, including Darlene, continues to have our full support as well as the support of the minister, the Ministry of Health and our board.”

Still, the memo had me thinking: If there were no failures worth acknowledging publicly, if staffers were the only ones in line for an apology, if the entire team could count on Dix’s support, why the makeover?

On Wednesday, Dix announced the appointment of a new board to oversee emergency health services. He named former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu as chair and Telus president Darren Entwistle as special adviser. He recruited Leanne Heppell, chief operating officer of Providence Health Care, to serve in the newly created post of chief ambulance officer on an interim basis.

If things were as copacetic with emergency services as the PHSA leadership seems to believe, Dix would not have said — as he did a half dozen times — that when people call for an ambulance “they must know that help is on the way and quickly.”

If anything, Dix waited too long to publicly acknowledge the troubles inside the provincially funded ambulance service.

The horror stories predate the heat wave, though the unprecedented temperatures brought it to a crisis point with what appear to be (pending final verdicts from the chief corner) hundreds of excess deaths.

For the longest time, the New Democrats were in denial, content to say that the problem was brought on by the pandemic and overdose crisis and, any way, they’d inherited a mess four years ago from the B.C. Liberals.

You could tell this week’s announcement entailed a bit of a scramble because Dix — a detail politician if ever there was one — did not announce budget figures or a timetable to go with the commitment to expanded, reliable ambulance service.

“We hope to see results soon — we’re going to need to,” he acknowledged.

But having stalled while the alarm bells were ringing, he’s not allowed much time to deliver on his promise that when people call for ambulance, than can be sure one is on the way.