An infusion of new money into B.C.’s beleaguered ambulance service may just be a Band-Aid solution to a larger problem, but those worried about service gaps in rural and remote communities say they’ll happily take whatever temporary stability it provides.
Health Minister Adrian Dix announced this week the government would immediately increase the on-call rate for ambulance paramedics from $2 per hour to $12 per hour, as well as double the pay for overtime and recall shifts on evenings and weekends.
The goal is to entice part-time paramedics back to work, especially in smaller communities where lack of staff has meant ambulances sitting unused and people fearful of long wait times when calling 911 for help. Community leaders linked several deaths this summer to extraordinarily long waits for ambulances, as part of a buckling healthcare system in which hospital emergency rooms were also frequently closed due to staffing shortages.
“What you see in a lot of rural communities is the second ambulance, which depends on on-call paramedics, is less staffed than we need it to be,” said Dix.
Incentives for on-call shifts
“So this increases the incentive for people to take on those on-call shifts, which is important in establishing services there.”
The low on-call pay rate has for decades deterred people from taking shifts as paramedics, say critics. The problem has been worsened by the health staffing crisis left in the wake of COVID-19. As smaller hospital ERs closed temporarily due to staff shortages, ambulances were diverted for longer distances and large gaps were exposed in the system of on-call ambulances that paramedics increasingly refused to staff.
“It’s an acknowledgement that $2 an hour is not enough for anybody to show up for anything,” said Merlin Blackwell, the mayor of the District of Clearwater who has been helping coordinate a coalition of rural mayors to advocate for healthcare improvements.
“The $12 (an hour) change is going to make it so that if somebody takes an on-call shift they aren’t going to actually lose money on it through the gas money it takes to get to a place and the meals they have to buy sitting around at a station waiting for jobs.
Paramedic not a “hobby job”
“This is actually paying them for a paramedic, not to be a hobby job if you are part-time.”
Dix said the pay boost will run until Dec. 31, during which time the government is hoping to ratify a new collective agreement with the union representing ambulance paramedics that would include permanent pay boosts.
“These measures are good things but they are not going to address the significant bigger long term issues,” said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC. “But they should buy us some time, and staff more ambulances.”
Dix is under fire almost daily at the legislature for the crisis in the healthcare system, despite having dramatically boosted the number of full-time ambulance stations, funded hundreds of new paramedics, and installed new leadership at BC Emergency Health Services.
The changes are sweeping. But they haven’t solved long wait times and sporadic service in both urban and rural communities. Nor have they prevented critics from linking some deaths to the instability in the system.
The Opposition BC Liberals say even with the funding boost people in small towns and cities are worried that no one will show up if they phone 911.
More permanent solution needed
“There have been just an ongoing list of promises about fixing the situation, and yet what do we find ourselves with? An interim measure,” said Shirley Bond, BC Liberal health critic.
“While I appreciate it might make a difference in the short-term, this problem needs a significant investment of resources, attention and a far more permanent solution.”
It’s a particular issue for BC’s interior and northern regions, said Bond.
“The most common comment we hear is that rural British Columbia feels abandoned and forgotten,” she said.
Blackwell last month used social media to issue a call for help from any paramedics in neighbouring communities who could take on-call ambulance shifts in Clearwater.
“If the ambulance isn’t available, things fall apart,” he said. “It adds stress to the nurse situation, the ER situation, and vice-versa… the trickle-down causes low staff morale, causes burnout with whomever is left.”
Blackwell said he appreciates the new pay is only temporary, and that the government has been trying to get creative in other areas of the system as well.
“Whatever Band-Aid we need right now to stabilize things, I will take it any day of the week.”