Town councillors in Oliver, B.C. are demanding answers from the Interior Health Authority (IHA) as its local hospital continues to be plagued by staffing shortages.
For years, the South Okanagan General Hospital (SOGH) has struggled to staff the emergency department, resulting in periodic closures.
“The sporadic closures are very concerning,” said town councillor Larry Schwartzenberger on Wednesday.
In November, three of the emergency room physicians, who also run their own family practices, took the rare step of pleading before town council for help.
WATCH BELOW: (Aired Feb. 22, 2018) Interior Health CEO addresses myriad of issues facing rural Oliver hospital
“Unfortunately we anticipate more issues going forward for potential closures, unfilled shifts, and we’re not finding solutions at the moment,” said Dr. Dr. Jacob Bellingan at the time.
Dr. Peter Entwistle, the hospital’s former chief of staff, said no one takes responsibility.
“If you ask Interior Health, they will say it’s the doctors. The doctors will say it’s Interior Health or the ministry, and the ministry will say it’s someone else,” he told council.
Petra Veintimilla, who is the Town of Oliver’s hospital liaison, said solutions need to be implemented swiftly.
“I can appreciate that it is a complicated issue,” she said, “but from the outside it seems kind of crazy that we’re talking about the same thing over and over and over and year after year.”
The doctors told council the problem with ER coverage is the high workload, lack of support and a gap in compensation between Oliver and surrounding hospitals like Penticton Regional Hospital (PRH).
WATCH ABOVE: (Aired June 16, 2017) ‘It’s unacceptable’: Oliver residents lament temporary ER closure
Currently, doctors are compensated by fee for service, which means they are paid per patient.
The physicians told council they want to see the payment structure changed to the alternative payment plan or APP, which means they’d be compensated per hour.
They said it would cost the province an additional $400,000 a year.
The hospital is forced to rely on locums to fill all of the ER shifts.
“The potential disparity in pay makes it difficult for them to retain those locums,” Veintimilla said.
“They’re doing an upgrade to our emergency department to the tune of almost $1 million which is great,” added Schwartzenberger.
“If they’re going to do that and upgrade the ER department here, they should also look at funding the operations and make sure we have enough doctors to cover the shifts that are needed.”
WATCH BELOW: (Aired April 11, 2017) Staffing shortages plague Oliver Hospital ER
The BC Ministry of Health declined to say why it rejected the APP application to change the way Oliver doctors are paid for ER shifts.
Dr. Michael Ertel, Interior Health’s vice-president of medicine and quality, said in a letter to town council, dated Jan. 15., that health officials met with local physician leaders to review options for financial compensation and how to improve the work environment at SOGH.
“We have collaboratively identified several short and long term strategies that I am optimistic will ensure stability and fair financial remuneration for the physicians who chose to work in Oliver,” Ertel said in the letter.
When asked to explain what those solutions are, IHA would only say “we continue to work with doctors to find local solutions and we will share further detail when we are able.”
Veintimilla said town council and the public shouldn’t be left in the dark.
“We would be interested in knowing what are the short-term and long-term solutions,” she said.