Health Minister Adrian Dix sat down with reporter Tyler Olsen for a wide-ranging interview before this month’s announcement of a new urgent and primary care centre in Abbotsford. This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
TO: How are health care decisions affected by the government’s own decisions regarding finances and restraints on the financial side?
AD: Every decision, ultimately, is about money and the allocation of that money. Today’s decision to improve primary care in Abbotsford, I think, will have a positive effect on all these problems. But it’s also a decision. We’re spending these millions of dollars here rather than there. But I think what we succeeded in doing is making improvements and my job is to get the work done.
All of the issues you see in health care, you see in Abbotsford: challenges in acute care, challenges in seniors’ care, challenges in primary care and an increasing population, which you absolutely need to care for in the present while making the changes necessary to ensure the health system is better in the long run.
And that can be a challenge too. So those are the choices you make. I feel that we’re on the right track here, and that we’re taking the steps. But what I like to do is take the steps and then talk about them and not brag too much, because this is people’s health-care system; it should work.
TO: How quickly are those steps being taken versus how quickly they need to be [taken]?
AD: Well, we overturned the Liberal cuts and beds of 2015. It was 247 beds when I became Minister of Health. It was 270 when it opened.
TO: On a per-capita basis though…
AD: But this is actual change, like from 247 to 272, which it is now, is a more than 10 per cent increase in beds since I became Minister of Health and, without an announcement, without any theatre, we reversed those things. And that makes a difference. It was needed. It absolutely had to happen … This is about providing basic services. So there’s step one.
The addition of the mental health and addiction zone is really important here and in Burnaby for life in the emergency room. I think it’s absolutely the right course. And I think this has to become a standard. Again, it doesn’t resolve the whole problem. But it’s a step. There’s a tendency of, “Well, we’ve got to do this” and that everything will be better.
That’s not the way it is.
TO: When is it incumbent on yourself to stop talking about the past government and when do you begin to own the current state of the health-care system?
AD: Well, I owned it on day one but it takes time to reverse course and to change the situation. It takes time to build an emergency room. If somehow I could conjure it up and we could have it there tomorrow, then that would be great, but we can’t. We’ve got to build it and we’ve got to plan it.
They did reduce the number of beds and we have increased the number of beds, and I think people should know that. But for someone who has a car accident and is taken to Abbotsford Regional Hospital, I understand. They don’t care whether it’s a Liberal government, NDP government; they need care.
But I do think if we’re talking about the policy question, some of these questions take years to address because it takes years to train a doctor, it takes years to train a nurse, and you want changes that are not just addressing obvious challenges. You want long-term substantive change.
TO: What’s the state of the land that used to be home to MSA Hospital? (Officials have been saying they are working on the issue for five years.)
AD: Working on it.
TO: [Skeptical laugh]
AD: No, seriously: working on it. When we have something to announce – I think this is both the strength and the frustration for people in what we’re doing. My approach is to solve the problem and announce the solution, not talk about it all the time, say we’re doing this and we’re doing this. I’m doing this right. There are some opportunities here to address long-term care and to increase the number of beds, and we need to do it.
Fundamentally, the solution to challenges at Abbotsford Regional Hospital is not in the long-term opening of more beds at Abbotsford Regional Hospital because there’s a limit to what you’re going to be able to do physically and provide the care. Some of the solutions are what we are doing today [opening an urgent and primary care centre] and addressing long-term care.
There’s always an issue – we’ve been building hospitals around B.C. … but principally we’re doing that because most of the hospitals were build in the late ’50s and early ’60s. You see that really evident in mental health and addictions in all those sections of those hospitals – they’re all from a different time.
So that’s why we’re building those hospitals, but there’s a real debate as to if you’re going to invest, where do you invest? Do you invest in long-term care or do you invest in the hospital? We’re reducing length of stays in hospitals. But, ultimately, the key is to be able to provide a continuum of care – primary care, acute care, when people need it, but then the ability for people to leave the hospital and not be around the hospital. That’s obviously critical and that’s a challenge in Abbotsford.
And the problem is 20 years in the making, I’d argue here.
In that, the challenge is: the federal Liberal cuts of the ’90s took it out of health care a little bit and then the previous government took it out of health care a bit. And in the Fraser Health region, unlike other health regions, that period coincided with a massive increase in population growth.
I was reading some of your pieces coming out of here, and you said in an op-ed piece the idea was to respond in the community and that hasn’t worked.
I’d argue it has worked, because the situation would be worse had we not done those things. So it’s not like … B following A doesn’t mean A caused B. It has worked and the situation is better because of it. But it’s not been sufficient and it’s not the whole answer.
When you have 100,000 more people, you get that many more separated shoulders, broken legs and heart attacks. So you’ve got to respond to that in a way that really works for people.
TO: But back to the McCallum road property: When you took over, it had been sitting vacant for years but there was an RFP (request for proposal) done a couple years ago and it didn’t go anywhere, and it’s been a couple years since you’ve been [in power]. What is taking so long?
AD: It’s taking too long…
TO: But what is taking so long?
AD: We’re working our way through it. When you’re talking of disposition of assets in British Columbia, there are issues with First Nations and you have to go through the process and take time. But I’m optimistic about it – there are those issues and other issues, but once we get going these are permanent solutions that are going to be in place for decades and so we have to get it right. But it is a high priority for me, as Abbotsford is – you can see by some of the things we’ve done.
TO: Is there a timeline you can give on that?
TO: Will it be done by the next election?
AD: Well, it is a one-seat minority government. (Laughs) You’ll have to do better than that.
TO: Will it be done by…
AD: We’re trying to make progress. I’m hearing it now. One by one we have to take on issues in Abbotsford and one by one I’m doing it and the government’s trying to do it: beds and ER and helping and supporting our staff; initiatives we’ll be announcing soon to address issues of violence, which are about every hospital, not just Abbotsford, but there was a terrible incident in Abbotsford, of course, that I think profoundly affected the staff. We gotta take these things on one by one.
The interview concluded shortly after in order for Dix to announce Abbotsford’s new urgent and primary care centre.
In December, The News reported that Abbotsford Regional Hospital had the highest mortality rate of any large B.C. hospital. Sixty-four more deaths were registered at the hospital last year than would be expected by the demographics of the hospital’s patients.
As the interview closed, Dix said that his ministry is investigating the cause of the high death rate.
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