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Rob Shaw: BC NDP focuses on health-care improvements as election nears

Despite criticisms, the BC government showcases its commitment to enhancing healthcare with significant funding increases and strategic planning
Health-care workers at Vancouver General Hospital. Provincial health-care spending is up 74 per cent since 2017, which equates to an extra $15 billion in the system from when the party first took office.

Embedded in virtually every BC NDP candidate announcement these days — and there are a lot of them — is a line that might surprise you. It’s about the governing party’s successes in the health-care system, with more doctors hired, more hospitals built and better services provided to British Columbians.

It’s not something you would expect a seven-year incumbent government to celebrate, given the constant stream of negativity about ER closures in rural communities, long wait times in hospital hallways and staffing shortages across the province.

But there is a calculation here from New Democrats that no government will ever truly be free of negative stories in such a large, complex, multifaceted system as B.C. health care. And with the public system facing proposals from other parties for more privatization in the upcoming election, New Democrats feel it’s time to start highlighting the quiet successes of the public system.

At the centre of all this is B.C.’s longest-serving health minister, Adrian Dix.

“Sometimes we have individual stories that get a lot of attention,” he said in an interview.

“But the public health-care system and public health-care responses have been exceptional over the last few years and we’ve released some reports that show this.”

Most NDP candidate announcements are accompanied by the line that since 2017 the government has been: “Strengthening health care by creating more beds and services locally and hiring 700 more doctors and licensing internationally trained health professionals to work across B.C.”

The figure has been vouched for by Doctors of BC, in large part due to the new funding model for family doctors that replaced service fees with a flat rate for each patient, improving financial incentives and recruitment for doctors who had otherwise left the family practice system.

It has not, by any means, solved the doctor shortage — but it has made a dent in the roughly one million people unattached to family physicians, down to 885,000 in the most recent survey.

“We were sixth for family doctors per capita when I became health minister and now we are first,” said Dix.

“That doesn't mean all those people who don’t have a doctor, we say we are better than Ontario, and they say, ‘Wahoo.’ They are going to say, ‘What’s happening here?’ All of it is a challenge.”

Dix also pointed to quiet progress in other areas, including MRI and CT scans (used to diagnose a variety of ailments) as well as surgical wait times.

MRI exams are up 83 per cent since 2017 and CT scans 43 per cent, according to the health ministry. In part, it’s because B.C. has bought 18 more MRI units, nine more CT scanners, trained 373 more MRI technicians (a 133-per-cent increase) and improved benchmarks across the board, said Dix.

“While it doesn't sometimes catch a lot of attention against issues, when you talk about 322,000 people getting an MRI exam, that’s a huge difference in a short period of time,” he said.

“We went from the bottom to the top.”

On surgical wait times, B.C. logged a record number of surgeries last year, according to the ministry. In part, that comes from the government purchasing a private surgical centre in Vancouver Coastal Health and two in Fraser Health.

Dix said it also comes from maximizing use of public operating rooms and diagnostic times, including operating some services 24-7.

“People are surprised they get an appointment at 3 a.m.,” he said. “But when you need an MRI, getting an appointment at 3 a.m. is a good idea. And those people tend to show up.”

Critics like BC United Leader Kevin Falcon have said Dix is fudging the numbers, or at least only selectively releasing an avalanche of statistics to back up his claims of progress. Across the province, especially in rural areas, there remain extraordinary delays and pressures on the system. The system is straining under record population growth, almost entirely due to immigration.

New Democrats, though, are proactively backstopping the public system for what they anticipate will be an attack in the election by parties like United and the Conservatives who say increased involvement of the private sector into public health care will provide better results.

Falcon in particular has called for reforms, and said continuing to throw more money at health care is not improving outcomes. Conservative Leader John Rustad has encouraged looking abroad for a mix of privately delivered services within the public system.

There are other political manoeuvres as well, including United’s pledge Saturday to provide free shingles vaccines for British Columbians over the age of 50, something New Democrats have been considering but yet to enact. And the Conservatives have pushed hard to end the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement for nurses and other health-care professionals, to improve staffing.

The NDP has spent extraordinary sums on health care — spending is up 74 per cent since 2017, which equates to an extra $15 billion in the system from when the party first took office.

While there are still all sorts of individual horror stories of patients unable to find a doctor, and stuck on waiting lists for diagnostics and surgeries, the governing party is trying to highlight some success stories, for fear of having the single-largest budgetary expense be an overwhelmingly negative campaign issue.

“There will be lots of people who will read your column and say, well I’m waiting too long,” said Dix.

“And I agree with them. But we had a situation prior to that, in the North for example, where in most cases you couldn't get one [an MRI]. I’m happy with the argument we should be doing better. I think we should be doing better. But this was an area of care fundamentally neglected over time.”

Whether it’s enough, will be a matter for voters in October.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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