Residents of Merritt, B.C., and the nearby vicinity were advised for the second time in a span of three days to leave town in case they required urgent medical assistance.
The recent closure of the emergency room at Nicola Valley Hospital has caused frustration for the mayor of the city. In response, the mayor is considering reducing the payments that Merritt provides to the province for health services.
Interior Health stated in a release around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning that the temporary closure was due to an unforeseen lack of available staff.
The health authority announced that emergency room services will be temporarily halted until 7 p.m. PT on Tuesday. During this period, patients will need to seek medical assistance at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, which is approximately an hour’s drive north of Merritt.
A few hours later, Interior Health ended the closure early and issued another release saying the authority had secured enough staff to reopen the ER. That release was posted on the social media site X at around 11 a.m.
Although services may have resumed for the day, the continuous suspension of emergency room services in the area has persisted as an ongoing issue.
Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency room services were also unavailable from 8 a.m. Sunday to 8 a.m. Monday, with Interior Health citing limited physician availability as the reason for that closure.
The department is typically accessible all day and every day.
The recent closure of the emergency room has not impressed Merritt Mayor Michael Goetz, marking the 16th occurrence this year.
He states that the city will begin holding back payments to the province for hospital services on days when those services are unavailable.
“So, in 2024, we are going to calculate our taxes like we normally do and then we are going to pull back 15, 16, 17, 18 days — whatever it is by the time 2023 is over,” Goetz told CBC’s Daybreak Kamloops.
“There is no sense paying for something you didn’t get,” said Goetz. “You gotta do what you gotta do and that’s what we are going to end up doing.”
Goetz spoke to CBC hours before Interior Health announced that adequate staffing meant the local ER would be able to open before Tuesday night.
CBC has contacted the health authority for comment.
The minister emphasizes that Merritt ER services are of utmost importance.
Health Minister Adrian Dix issued a written statement in response to a request, stating that he had a meeting with Goetz last month during the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention in Vancouver to discuss the matter.
Dix stated that Goetz is aware of Merritt and ensuring the continuous operation of the emergency department in Nicola Valley is of great importance to us.
As he has mentioned before, it is crucial for us to collaborate in order to prevent this from recurring. It is necessary to draw in a greater number of physicians and nurses to Merritt, reducing our reliance on individuals from elsewhere.
The Ministry of Health has recently made a proposal to change the bylaw, which could potentially permit physician assistants to be employed in emergency rooms. Physician assistants are healthcare professionals who work under the supervision of physicians.
Dix reported an increase of more than 38,000 in the healthcare workforce during his tenure from 2017 to 2022.
However, B.C. has also experienced considerable population growth since that time. In 2017, it was estimated that there were 4.8 million individuals residing in the province, and recent quarterly population reports indicate that the number of residents has now exceeded 5.4 million as of April 1, 2023.
Interior Health provided a written statement stating that the hospital currently has a 40 percent vacancy rate for nursing positions. These positions are specifically permanent roles that remain unfilled. The health authority assured that they will collaborate with Goetz and the City of Merritt, and are actively recruiting new physicians and nurses.
Kathy Doull, who is the executive director for clinical operations in the Interior Health west region, stated that the closure of the emergency department on Tuesday was due to a last-minute absence of a nurse, which resulted in there not being enough trained nurses available to ensure safe staffing.
Doull stated that Merritt is situated at the intersection of extensively used highway systems, which highlights the significance and essentialness of the emergency department in the community. Doull also expressed a strong dedication to providing reliable healthcare services to all individuals residing in the area.
The hospital in South Okanagan has also been impacted.
Insufficient staffing is impacting not just the Merritt community, but also other communities in the health region.
Interior Health also issued a notice of temporary service interruption for emergency room services at South Okanagan General Hospital from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The closure of the hospital in Oliver, B.C. is also attributed to limited physician availability, according to the health authority. This hospital provides services to residents in the area.
Residents in the vicinity who need immediate medical attention will now need to journey approximately 40 minutes by car towards the north, reaching Penticton Regional Hospital.
Temporary changes to the emergency department hours at South Okanagan General Hospital have been implemented due to limited physician availability. From 8 am to 1 pm on October 10, #Oliver and area residents are advised of these changes. Visit https://t.co/s2UT1gDvgl for more information.
Patients in the Keremeos area were also redirected to Penticton Regional on Saturday when the South Similkameen Health Centre was shuttered from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. due to limited nursing availability.
Emergency services were also unavailable all day on Saturday at the Slocan Community Health Centre, which serves residents of New Denver, north of Nelson, B.C., and the surrounding area.
Goetz expressed his support for other mayors in the area to unite with him in withholding payments until there is an enhancement in services.
Goetz suggested that if four or five communities join forces and begin the task, they might exert more effort.
Goetz stated that Nicola Valley currently has a nursing complement of 44 percent.
The mayor expressed uncertainty about whether withholding payments would motivate the province to initiate legal proceedings. CBC has contacted the attorney general’s office to obtain their comments.