Surrey Memorial Hospital's expanded emergency was reporting crowding soon after it opened.

Annual health care crisis grips B.C.

Patients flood ER each winter expecting flu treatment that doesn't exist, walk-in clinic service or relief from bad judgment

VICTORIA – The annual ritual of declaring a crisis in health care is upon us, with the B.C. Liberal government boasting that we have the best system in Canada, while the NDP and the B.C. Nurses’ Union try to portray it as the worst.

The BCNU is the last big public sector union still to settle in the latest round of contract talks. Feeding horror stories to the media is part of its strategy, and this time it was a patient at Abbotsford Hospital assigned a bed in a small shower room for a month due to chronic overcrowding. Hospital officials said his care wasn’t compromised.

We’ve seen it in Abbotsford, Surrey and elsewhere: a new hospital or expansion is built and is immediately overcrowded. We are reminded every winter that influenza season brings a wave of people into emergency, expecting treatment for a viral infection that in most cases can only run its course.

The problem peaks around Christmas, when more patients than usual use ER as their walk-in clinic.

Many people still don’t understand what “the flu” is, beyond the notion that it sounds serious enough to tell the boss you won’t be in to work. And as fewer doctors choose the endless demands of family practice, the expectation that all problems must be dealt with quickly and for free seems to grow as inexorably as the health care budget.

An emergency physician of my acquaintance provided a typical scenario for night shift at the ER. Where once nights were quiet, now there are patients waiting for hours, around the clock.

Several are drunk, and one has urinated on the floor. Surveys show as many as half of ER visits are alcohol-related, from overdoses to fights, falls, car crashes and chronic conditions.

Into this chaos comes a mother with her young child, who has nasal and chest congestion. The child’s cough led her to throw up, so off to ER they went, blithely assuming that this is where you bring a kid with a cold.

This week’s B.C. budget brings us a step closer to the moment when half of all provincial revenues go to keep the health care system running.

In the legislature, NDP health critic Judy Darcy blasted Health Minister Terry Lake for the government’s failure to keep its 2010 promise to find everyone in B.C. a family doctor.

Lake allowed they’re still working on that, and then plugged the latest Conference Board of Canada study showing B.C. ranks third in the world in health care outcomes, second only to Switzerland and Sweden.

Darcy, a former executive of the Hospital Employees’ Union, was quick to respond: “This is surely a first in question period, the Minister of Health going back to the record of the NDP government in the 1990s, because we’ve had the best health outcomes in Canada since 1993. The fact is that we exercise more, we smoke less and we drink less, and that’s to the credit of British Columbians.”

We also have more elderly people, as Premier Christy Clark argued in 2011 when the federal government changed its financing formula.

After years of increasing transfers by six per cent per year, the late federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced that starting in 2014, increases would be tied to economic growth, but wouldn’t fall below three per cent.

This of course was treated as a cut, rather than continued increases above inflation. But there it is, and all provinces have to deal with it.

Darcy is quite right that personal responsibility is the key, something to remember as the usual squabbling of special interests continues.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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