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health care funding

Health council trying to convince province to allocate more money $500,000 needed for ‘fair and equitable’ funding Expect to see scenes from the Whistler Health Care Centre on the evening news following the Easter weekend. It’s not that health officials are expecting any disasters that weekend, but they have invited television crews to help make a point: the province needs to allocate more money for health care in the Sea to Sky Corridor. "It’s not a crisis, but it’s very serious," says Fran Cuthbert, chair of the Sea to Sky Community Health Council. The Whistler Health Care Centre, as anyone who has needed its services knows, can resemble a M*A*S*H unit on any given weekend. Officially it is a diagnostic and treatment centre but effectively it functions as a hospital emergency ward. Some days it treats as many emergency patients as Lions Gate Hospital — 125 on one day during the Christmas holidays. Compared to other diagnostic and treatment centres around the province, Whistler is in a league of its own. In 1998 Whistler had just over 21,000 admissions. The next busiest diagnostic and treatment centre was Fraser Lake, which had 4,600. The same year Whistler had 415 ambulance transfers to hospital emergency wards. Chemainus was the second busiest diagnostic and treatment centre, with 242 transfers. But the story the health council wants to get out is not how busy the Whistler centre is, but how underfunded are the health care facilities in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish. The health council has some numbers to make that case: In 1996 per capita funding for diagnostic and treatment centres across B.C. averaged between $200 and $250. Funding for the Pemberton diagnostic and treatment centre was $152 per capita. Whistler was $96 per capita. "All we’re asking for is fair and equitable funding," Cuthbert says. On Feb. 18, the health council wrote to Health Minister Penny Priddy asking that some of the new money federal Finance Minister Paul Martin provided for health care be allocated to the Sea to Sky Corridor, to bring funding up to the same level as the rest of the province. Priddy has yet to reply. The underfunding situation was brought on by the province’s decision to regionalize health care a few years ago, and exacerbated by the Sea to Sky Corridor’s phenomenal growth rate. Prior to regionalization, each town’s health care facilities were funded individually. "Whistler never had a funding problem prior to regionalization, because it could count on money from treating out-of-country visitors," Cuthbert says. "Squamish was always underfunded and Pemberton, as it grew and tourism grew, needed more money." The health council maintains the corridor was 17.5 per cent underfunded when the regionalization program was initiated. Since then the corridor has seen 25 per cent growth. Yet funding for health care in the corridor has increased just .5 per cent annually — the same annual increase as received by communities which have had no growth. As a result, the Sea to Sky Community Health Council is heading for a shortfall in operating funds, possibly within the next year. Cuthbert says $350,000 is needed to maintain the present services, but with $500,000 the health council could bring services up to where they feel they should be; namely, operating the Whistler Health Care Centre as a Level 4 trauma centre, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That $500,000 would also provide more health services in Squamish and Pemberton. "Regionalization provided some cost savings, through centralization of administration and other things," Cuthbert says. "But next year there won’t be enough money." Two years ago the health council went to Ministry of Health officials to explain how funding wasn’t keeping up with population growth. "The bureaucrats have recognized that we are underfunded, but their response has always been ‘there is no new money available.’ Well now there is." Cuthbert acknowledges that with long waiting lists for surgery, doctors demands for a pay increase and overcrowding at hospitals the B.C. health care system faces many demands for the additional money Martin has provided. "Everybody needs more money, but our corridor is different," Cuthbert says. "Nobody else has had the growth we’ve had, nobody else has Highway 99 and nobody else has the visitors we do." "The province is taking a lot of money out of this corridor," Cuthbert notes. "All we’re asking for is fair funding. "Everyone is entitled to the same level of health care."

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