‘It’s a problem’: Oliver, B.C. seniors express concern about ongoing ER closures

File photo of the emergency department entrance at South Okanagan General Hospital in Oliver, B.C. Global News

Six times since Nov. 23, the emergency room at the South Okanagan General Hospital in Oliver, B.C., has been closed.

The closures have once again become more frequent, the most recent being Sunday overnight. Interior Health stated that each closure was due to limited physician availability.

In an email to Global News, Interior Health said the local physician group managing staffing at the hospital has struggled to secure physician coverage for emergency department shifts.

“It’s frustrating to continue to hear about these closures and get these closures,” said Mayor of Oliver Martin Johansen.

“I think we’ve had almost five in the last week, and the weekend was significant with a 24-hour closure and a 12-hour closure, as well.”

Click to play video: 'Solutions approved for ongoing ER closures'
Solutions approved for ongoing ER closures

Without an emergency room in Oliver, area residents are forced to travel up to an hour for health care.

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Julie Russell, Oliver Senior Centre’s president, says their members and guests often have difficulty accessing necessary health care when SOGH temporarily closes.

“We do hear pretty regularly from members and guests here who have been affected by the hospital closure. They’ve suddenly had to go to Penticton or for those who don’t drive, they’ve had to call an ambulance because friends couldn’t take them all the way to Penticton. It’s a problem,” said Russell.

“Absolutely, it’s a concern that seniors are the age group with the greatest health issues and unpredictable health issues.”

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Oliver Senior Centre’s first vice-president, Roberta Casselman, added that many seniors in the area don’t have a family doctor and Oliver does not have a walk-in clinic, so they rely on the South Okanagan General Hospital for health care.

“It’s been getting worse, and we’ve had a lot more closures. It used to be once in a while; I remember we had the first code orange for the hospital closure probably seven or eight years ago. I mean, it was just an absolute catastrophe. And then it happened so often now I don’t think people are as shocked by it,” said Casselman.

“We have had a couple of new doctors come to the area, but there’s still a lot of people who don’t even have family doctors, so they rely on the hospital. And then when the hospitals closed, then there’s nowhere to go.”

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Click to play video: 'ER closures putting stress on neighbouring communities’ paramedics'
ER closures putting stress on neighbouring communities’ paramedics

However, solutions could be just around the corner as an Alternative Payment Program (APP) for physicians was approved back in September for SOGH.

The amount of money that doctors make while working in the SOGH emergency room is not as high as it is at Penticton Regional, which is top of mind for Oliver’s mayor.

“Right now the payment model is a fee for service, so anytime you come to work in the emergency department right now, all you get is a certain amount of compensation per patient, where the new model you will get a compensation per shift regardless of the number of patients you see on that shift,” said Johansen.

“This is going to level the playing field, especially with Penticton and other communities that you come and work here. This is what you’re going to get compensated and that’s been a big stumbling block for a while.”

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According to the mayor, the new contract is currently being worked on and the new payment model could come into effect as early as January.

“The good news in a way is that we’re still waiting for this contract to be signed and once we get that contract signed, I’m going to be looking for better days ahead,” said Johansen.

Asked if residents can expect to see this continue throughout winter, Interior Health said “Doctors are scheduled according to their availability and Interior Health continues to actively work with the local physician group and provincially to support locums.”

The health agency added that Emergency Care BC has created a provincial physician pool to support filling urgent and last-minute vacancies at priority emergency department sites facing imminent understaffing.

“(South Okanagan General Hospital) is an important acute care site in the South Okanagan. Interior Health strives to minimize service disruptions if at all possible. Changes to normal service are done as a last resort after we have exhausted all options to secure physicians or staff.”

Interior Health continued, saying “the solution is a work in progress,” adding that it works collaboratively with the site to support locum and long-term physician recruitment through medical affairs.

“This includes working with physician and Ministry of Health partners to support income guarantees and the implementation of an Alternative Payment Plan contract to support emergency department services at SOGH.

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“(Interior Health) works collaboratively with other sites to enable IH physicians to work at SOGH under the umbrella of existing APP contracts.”

Click to play video: 'Oliver Mayor speaks out following frequent ER closures'
Oliver Mayor speaks out following frequent ER closures

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