Merritt mayor wants refund from BC government for hospital ER closures

Written By Rob Shaw

When the hospital emergency room in Merritt went dark again this week, marking the second 24-hour closure in just four days, the city’s mayor finally had enough. Mike Goetz began crafting what will be a provincial first: A demand for a refund from the B.C. government.

Goetz said he wants the province to pay the local regional district back $34,000 of the $653,012 it paid for healthcare services it failed to provide at Nicola Valley Hospital, due to its inability to employ enough doctors and staff to run the ER.

“We expect to get full for the days we paid,” Goetz said in an interview. “We didn’t get that service 19 times last year, and already two times this year.”

“We paid for something, and we expect it.”

Mike Goetz

Goetz likened it to a local resident paying for a pool pass, and then the municipality having to shut down the recreation centre for days. Merritt would compensate the person by adding extra free days to their pass, he said.

“You could issue us a cheque right now, or give me that credit coming into 2025,” he said of the province.

Withholding taxes for healthcare unprecedented

No municipality has ever tried to withhold tax revenue over a healthcare dispute. It’s not even clear if that’s possible.

Goetz intends to present the motion at the next Thompson Regional Hospital District meeting in March.

“It’ll be the first time it’s done so it will take some time to figure out how this will look,” he said.

Technically, the regional hospital board only gathers tax revenue for capital projects, like contributing towards the cost of a new healthcare facility or hospital.

Whether it could demand a rebate on the capital side of the accounting ledger, when the healthcare failure is on the operating side, is one of many open questions.

‘It’s a huge priority for us’

Premier David Eby was asked by Northern Beat to respond to the mayor’s proposal, and he said the staff shortages happening in the region are not dissimilar to frustrations felt in all parts of the province.

“The challenge our healthcare system faces is a serious one,” said Eby.

“It’s a huge priority for us.”

David Eby

“Our work will continue on this. I understand this frustration, I understand the anxiety of people looking for care in Merritt and wondering whether the emergency room is open. It’s a huge priority for us.”

If withholding is successful, other communities may follow

It’s not clear whether the motion will pass the Thompson Regional Hospital District, which covers a vast region that includes Lillooet, Ashcroft, Kamloops, Chase, Barriere and Clearwater.

Many of the member communities have also suffered their own healthcare woes.

Clearwater, for example, saw the Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital closed 60 times during a six-month period in 2022, but has since improved the closure rate after a co-operative local effort that saw local residents offer up their own suites to help with staff recruitment. 

Goetz said he hopes to set a precedent other communities can use to bring forward their own refund demands.

“If this moves through, I’d expect every other community would be asking,” he said.

‘It’s a sad way to run a healthcare system’

Part of the frustration is that the province and Interior Health announced $7.5 million in October to help stabalize ER staff coverage in Merritt and surrounding communities. The money was identified at the time as part of a new compensation model contract for rural physicians.

But since then, there has been very little visible progress, said Jackie Tegart, the BC United MLA for Fraser-Nicola.

“It sounded like a great announcement, how can you not fix this problem for $7.4 million — and yet here we find ourselves with our ER closed,” said Tegart.

“It’s like, you have to check DriveBC to see if the roads are open, and are we going to have to start checking Interior Health to see if the ER is open? It truly undermines people’s trust in the system.”

“Are we going to have to start checking Interior Health to see if the ER is open?”

Jackie Tegart

Tegart said she’s not sure what the NDP government will do if it gets Merritt’s request for a healthcare refund.

“As a community, you look for every opportunity you can to try and get the attention of government,” she said. “It’s a sad way to run a healthcare system. If your loved one is waiting on the doorstep of an ER, and you are concerned about whether they can make it, this is totally unacceptable.”

Goetz said he’ll see what his regional director colleagues do with his motion at the hospital board, and go from there. But there’s a larger principle at play.

“We paid for something, and we expect it,” he said.

“The only way to get someone’s attention, sometimes, is in the wallet.”

Correction on Feb. 16: Mayor Goetz wants the province to return $34,000 for health care services not rendered. Not $653,012, as originally published.