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Keith Baldrey: New funding to fight cancer is sorely needed

$440 million for better screening, higher pay for oncologists and expanded care and is part of province’s 10-year plan.
The B.C. government has announced new funding as part of a 10-year plan to improve cancer screening and treatment in the province.

Two health statistics were released by the B.C. government last week, and they were somewhat startling.

One was that the number of people getting a cancer diagnosis would increase by one-third over the next decade, going from the current 30,000 people a year to 40,000 people annually.

The other was that one in two British Columbians will be diagnosed some kind of cancer at some point in their life.

The two statistics helped lay the foundation for the government’s announcement that $440 million would be the initial investment in a 10-year cancer “action plan.”

The funding is sorely needed as there appears to have been a steady downward slide in the quality of care over the years. Critics say the decline began after a change in the governance model of the BC Cancer Agency in 2001, shifting the agency’s priority from top cancer care to fiscal management.

An investigation by the Globe and Mail newspaper last November found growing wait times for cancer care and worsening outcomes for patients (the B.C. Health Ministry maintains that B.C. has the second-best outcomes among all provinces). The paper also said B.C.’s oncologists are reporting the highest levels of stress and burnout in the country.

Part of the new funding will make B.C. oncologists the highest paid in the country, getting a $62,000 raise for an annual salary of $472,000 (this follows an earlier move by the government to make family physicians the highest paid in the country).

In making the announcement of the $440 million in new funding, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the cancer treatment system was underfunded for a decade before he became minister, and he insisted that about $1 billion had been invested in the system since his party formed government (funding that included the hiring of 325 health care workers).

Funding arguments aside, the inescapable fact is that our population is aging rapidly, and with that will come more demand and need for treatment and early detection of cancer.

There is no question the new funding will help, though. About $270 million will be spent over three years for better screening for cervical, lung and hereditary cancers as well as expanded care hours.

Another $170 million is a one-time grant (out of this year’s huge budget surplus) to the BC Cancer Foundation, to be used for more clinical trials, genomic testing and new diagnostic approaches and treatments.

Given our changing demographics and huge increase in cancer cases, this research money may prove to be the most effective kind of spending of all.

Dr. Kim Chi, the chief medical officer at the BC Cancer Agency, said the cancer plan is the “most significant investment in cancer care the province has ever seen,” and said it will save lives and meet rising demand.

Let’s hope so. Another 10,000 people a year getting cancer (which likely means an additional 3,000-4,000 deaths, based on current statistics) will put a tremendous amount of pressure on a system already facing enormous challenges.

The new $440 million covers the first three years of the 10-year plan. Don’t be surprised if another big funding lift occurs again to fight the inevitable rise of an insidious disease.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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