Frustrated mayors fight to save embattled rural health services

Written By Rob Shaw

“We cannot allow rural medicine to fail. It will destroy our communities,” says Merlin Blackwell.

Rural mayors in BC are banding together to fight the collapse of ambulance service and health care in their communities, saying their residents are “terrified” at the sudden lack of emergency help.

After a series of tragedies, the mayors of Clearwater, Fort St. John, Ashcroft and Port McNeil are joining forces – along with support from Barriere and Whistler – to demand the BC NDP government take more seriously the impact of the healthcare crisis in their smaller towns.

If the problem continues, they are proposing drastic action: Withhold local health care funding from the province.

“All of our communities are really fighting this battle, as small towns, of not being able to keep our ERs open, not being able to have adequate ambulance service,” said District of Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who noted his ER has been closed overnight for more than 50 days recently.

“Getting the province’s attention is not easy.”

Merlin Blackwell

“As a small town, I’ve got 2,400 people and no single major industry anymore, so getting the province’s attention is not easy,” Blackwell said.

“So, being loud and advocating and joining together as a group seems to be a much better way to get a voice at the table.”

Closures, gaps and shortages

Temporary ER closures and gaps in ambulance service are occurring across the province, amid a staffing shortage in healthcare caused by the pandemic, burnout, retirements and inadequate hiring.

But the problem is particularly acute in small communities, where the closure of the local ER could mean a multi-hour drive to the next facility, hundreds of kilometres away. 

Blackwell said it’s particularly worrying when there’s no one available to staff the local ambulance, or paramedics are called away to backstop another community, leaving people without any emergency care outside of a volunteer fire department.

“We are seeing the cracks in the system on multiple levels, and it’s almost an hourly conversation with citizens if I go anywhere,” said Blackwell.

“People are terrified — quite literally terrified by this.”

Merlin Blackwell

“People are terrified — quite literally terrified by this. I mean, a lot of the population is seniors and heart attacks are a real thing. I know of heart patients who’ve been driven by friends and relatives, because they didn’t even wait for the call to 911. They knew that they would save time getting to a hospital by getting somebody into the truck and going.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix was unavailable for an interview.

“We have added significant resources to BC Emergency Health Services with a particular focus in rural communities,” his ministry said in a statement.

The government has hired more than 500 paramedics and converted 24 ambulance stations from on-call to 24-hour service. But the paramedic union has publicly said there still aren’t enough people to back up full and part-time staff who are sick or unable to work — leaving communities with limited service and in some cases no ambulance at all.

Ambulance wait ends in tragedy

An eight-month-old infant died in Barriere last week after an ambulance was unavailable locally. Two seniors in Ashcroft, in separate cases, died this summer after an ambulance took more than half an hour to respond.

The tragic stories are piling up across the province. 

The Health Ministry did not acknowledge any concerns in its statement, saying only that “we look forward to talking with and working with rural and remote community leaders on ensuring improvements to services in their municipalities going forward.”

But that conversation with the province is simply not happening, said Blackwell.

Frustration forces radical proposal

It’s why the mayors are proposing withholding local and regional capital funding to provincial healthcare projects unless their concerns are addressed. 

It’s a radical idea, unprecedented even. And it’s not entirely clear if the local governments could actually pull it off. But it’s a sign of their immense frustration.

“At least it’s garnering some attention … that things are extremely serious.”

Peter Milobar

“It just speaks to that underlying feeling that the northern area of Interior Health definitely feels like the poor country cousin, in that it’s not getting the attention that it should,” said Opposition BC Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar.

“Given they have very limited levers to pull, just even having that discussion of withholding taxes, which is questionable of their ability to do that… at least it’s garnering some attention in the broader public that things are extremely serious.”

Failure, not an option

Blackwell said one of the things mayors are able to do is to facilitate discussion between local healthcare workers, ambulance paramedics and their employers at health authorities and provincial emergency health services.

There’s a distinct lack of trust between all sides, said Blackwell, and so the mayors are able to serve an intermediary role, passing along information and suggestions to try and improve the system between players who otherwise wouldn’t be talking constructively.

“We cannot fail.”

Merlin Blackwell

“As I said, this is not my job as mayor — my job is to work on roads, taxes, infrastructure, public works, parks and recreation and things like that,” said Blackwell. 

“But we cannot allow rural medicine to fail. We just cannot. It’s not an option. It will destroy our communities. 

“There’s a lot of small town mayors, including myself up to a few months ago, that said you know what, this is a (health authority) problem, this is a Ministry of Health problem. But we have to get involved. Because we cannot fail.”