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Baldrey: B.C.'s health care system will take every funding dollar it can

Will Ottawa's recent $1.2B investment for B.C. over the next three years actually help its health-care system?
Columnist Keith Baldrey dives deeper into the recent $1.2-billion funding to help B.C.'s health care system over the next three years.

At first glance, the deal reached with Ottawa for the federal government to spend another $1.2 billion in health care spending in this province over the next three years seems like, well, next to nothing.

After all, the B.C. government will spend close to $90 billion on health care in that same time frame so a $1.2 billion boost is in the neighbourhood of a tiny one per cent increase.

However, a closer look at where the money will be spent reveals it may end up having an impact that is disproportionately greater than measuring it in purely percentage terms.

That is because the bulk of the new money — about $300 million a year — will be targeted at boosting nursing levels in dozens of acute care facilities. In fact, the plan is to create an "innovative model of care" at 83 different acute care sites, most of them hospitals.

This should allow the implementation of "ratios" when it comes to nurses looking after patients, to better ensure that nurses do not get swamped with an unmanageable workload, as has been the case for years.

The patient roster problem has been around for years but has become especially dire in recent months, as hospital bed occupancy has ballooned to record levels that show no signs of abating.

For the longest time, having close to 10,000 people in hospital was something that occurred usually during respiratory illness season but over the normally "quiet" summer months the norm was about 9,700 people in hospital beds on any given day.

To address this growing problem, the health authorities are reclassifying "surge beds" into "base beds," which means they will have dedicated staff (i.e., nurses) and equipment associated with them (surge beds are pressed into service when there are no base beds available, and often become the proverbial “hallway medicine” cases).

This new funding deal with Ottawa may also be the model of the future when it comes to the provinces convincing the senior government to contribute a greater portion to the ever-growing health care funding pie.

Last February, the premiers and their health ministers were unanimous in their call for Ottawa to boost its share of health care funding to close to 35 per cent from the current 25 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the feds so no thanks to that suggestion and came back with an offer of $196 billion over 10 years (almost $50 billion of that in new funding). That was far short of what the provinces were looking for, but the premiers took it anyway.

A big part of that new money was the provinces being able to negotiate side deals to cover issues unique, or in any case prevalent within their borders. In return, Ottawa is not unreasonably insisting information and data be collected to ensure that whatever money is being spent, it is being spent wisely and in the right areas.

B.C. was the first to sign one of these side deals and who knows if others may be available in the years ahead.

In the meantime, a $400-million injection of cash from Ottawa every year into targeted health care spending may be as good as it gets in provincial-federal relations these. Framed against the enormous health care system, it is not a lot of money.

And to be sure, the new funding will not fix a heck of a lot. There will continue to be a shortage of family doctors, rural emergency rooms will continue to close, wait lists will be unacceptably long for many procedures, the list goes on and on.

But given the dire situation our health care system seems to find itself almost every day, any new dollars are worth it.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.