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Access to Alberta health care services for B.C. patients remains complicated

Some specialist medical services and treatment are closer in Alberta rather than the Okanagan, Lower Mainland
East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook. Google maps photo

Access to specialized health care services is a long-running challenge for B.C. residents living in the southeast corner of the province.

Typically, specialized health care services — if not available at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook — are in Kelowna, a seven-hour drive away from the region. In contrast, those services are also available in neighbouring Alberta, where places like Calgary and Lethbridge are geographically much closer.

However, for the last few years, B.C. residents living in border communities have been unable to access those specialized or non-urgent services.

Internal Alberta politics and capacity challenges are a major factor, according to B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Further, there is a disparity between the number of Alberta patients that are treated in B.C. health care facilities as opposed to the other way around, he added.

“It’s not related to inter or intra-provincial issues. It’s related to their own capacity and so they made some decisions,” said Dix, during a virtual press conference on Monday, Sept. 18. “We would prefer they not do that, and I’ll tell you why we prefer they not do that — we take care of a lot more Albertans than they take care of British Columbians.

“Let me repeat that — we take care of a lot more Albertans than they take care of British Columbians and if we took the attitude that they are taking, it would have a much more negative affect on Albertans than it would on British Columbians.”

According to data provided by the B.C. Ministry of Health, the number of B.C. residents treated at Albertan hospitals in 2021-22 was 1,793. By contrast, 3,794 Alberta-based patients were treated at B.C. hospitals in that same time period.

Numbers provided by the Alberta Ministry of Health paint a different picture.

According to Alberta’s health ministry, 21,643 B.C. residents received insured hospital services, while 167,006 B.C. received insured medical services over the same time period.

The Townsman has reached out to both provincial health ministries for clarity on the disparity between the two different sets of numbers.

Most Alberta hospital services typically received by B.C. residents included Cardiac Pacemaker Surgical Implantation, Aortic Valve operations, heart transplants, and diagnostic services such as outpatient laboratory and diagnostic imaging, according to Alberta’s Ministry of Health.

B.C. resident access to Alberta health care services was thrust into the public discourse during a regional district board meeting earlier in September, where Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok and Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka noted that health care was by far the most prominent issue raised by constituents.

While Alberta has restricted B.C. resident access to non-emergent health care, Dix was adamant that B.C. will not reciprocate a quid pro quo response, and sympathized with patients living in border regions.

“The people who I think feel that the most are people along the border both in the northeast and in the southeast, in different ways, but particularly I think in the southeast,” said Dix. “And so we’d like to see Alberta move, but this is an internal political decision that they’ve made around their health care system and we’ve chosen not to make the same decisions — in other words, not to get into one of those battles — because we don’t see that as advancing the situation in any way.

“But those are the facts. The facts are B.C. is a net importer of health care from Alberta, not vice versa, and that the challenges we face now are really internal decisions.”

Adriana LaGrange, Alberta’s Minister of Health, was not made available for an interview to discuss the issue.

An Alberta health ministry spokesperson said that Alberta participates in medical and hospital reciprocal agreements with other Canadian provinces and territories.

If a Canadian resident requires insured emergency physician or hospital care in Alberta, that care is provided and the cost billed to the patient’s home province, when a patient provides a valid provincial health care insurance card to the Alberta medical or hospital service provider, according to the spokesperson.

Nothing crystallizes the issue more clearly than the challenges of accessing radiation therapy cancer care services faced by rural B.C.-based patients who live in the southeast corner of the province.

For East Kootenay patients requiring radiation therapy, the closest B.C. Cancer Centre is in Kelowna — a seven-hour drive west into the Okanagan. Meanwhile, Calgary and Lethbridge are a four- and three-hour drive away, respectively, heading east into Alberta.

In Cranbrook, local officials are hoping to seize an opportunity to bring radiation therapy services to the East Kootenay Regional Hospital.

Interior Health is currently in the process of planning a business case for a new tower on site that will be a new home for oncology and renal departments.

The Kootenay East Regional Hospital District (KERHD) has been pushing for the inclusion of radiation therapy in that business case, even approving an additional $100,000 dedicated to plans for radiation therapy services in the new building.

However, Interior Health is unable to access that funding, as radiation therapy services are not within the scope authorized by the Ministry of Health, according to KERHD board chair David Wilks.

That business plan is expected to be presented to the board at a quarterly meeting in November.

Wilks also noted in past meetings that a corporate donor has pledged a significant financial contribution in support of the project if it moves forward.

Dix sidestepped when asked directly about the potential inclusion of radiation therapy into the business plan for the new tower at EKRH in Cranbrook.

He noted that four new BC Cancer Centres are in the business planning stage — Kamloops, Nanaimo, Burnaby and the new Surrey hospital.

“Those are the sites we’re building right now and we’ll be looking at proposals from places such as Cranbrook as well, but those are the ones that are on track right now, announced and being built, which is significant —four new sites on six existing sites would give us 10, which is a massive increase in our capacity for radiation therapy,” Dix said.

A push for radiation therapy services at EKRH in Cranbrook is motivated, in part, by the significant travel and accommodation costs faced by East Kootenay patients who must travel to Kelowna — the closest BC Cancer Centre — for those same services.

It’s been a bone of contention for local officials, who point to the inequity of travel and accommodation reimbursements for B.C.-based patients accessing radiation therapy services in Washington State, a provincial plan previously announced this spring in response to strain on B.C.’s cancer care system.

Based on data provided by Provincial Health Services Authority earlier this spring, approximately 230 patients in the East Kootenay region receive radiation therapy services in Kelowna per year.

However, while closing out the annual convention of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities on Friday (Sept. 22), Premier David Eby announced an initial investment of $20 million in partnership with Hope Air and the Canadian Cancer Society to enhance travel supports for rural B.C. patients seeking cancer care in B.C.

Currently, Angel Flight East Kootenay, a volunteer-based non profit organization, operates a transport link between the East Kootenay and Kelowna, taking patients to specialist medical appointments to and from the Okanagan.

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.
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