Health minister details challenges, successes of the system

Health minister Terry Lake details challenges and successes of the system in B.C.

By Dale Bass

Kamloops This Week

One of the last places a person wants to be when they are sick is in a hospital, the province’s health minister told a gathering of Kamloops business people on Friday, June 13.

He was not denigrating the quality of treatment in the facilities, Terry Lake said, but acknowledging hospitals are home to many virus and bacteria, not all of which are under the control of staff.

It’s why his ministry works with the many partners in  health care in B.C., all with an eye to keeping costs down, wait lists short, diagnoses and care fluid and minimizing the amount of time people must spend in a hospital or care facility.

Lake told the lunch meeting of Kamloops Chamber of Commerce members at Hotel 540 he is stickhandling through a patchwork system that has evolved over time, one that includes private clinics, third-party insurers, medical professionals using various billing processes, wait lists that never seem to shorten and an aging population relying more on health care than ever before.

The Ministry of Health has a $17 billion budget, with the bulk of services (40 per cent) being used by a demographic (75 years of age and older) that comprises just seven per cent of the province’s population.

He said spending in the mid-200s was becoming unsustainable, with increases up to 8.1 per cent in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

He said his ministry has worked to “bend the curve down” so that health-care cost increases are now in the two to three per cent range annually.

That’s been accomplished through various ways, including what Lake called a “hard-line approach” with drug companies that has saved more than $100 million for the health-care system and which he predicted will decrease by another eight per cent next year.

The savings have come via the government’s decision to opt for cheaper generic drugs for patients.

Lake said another $200 million has been saved in a four-year period by employing a shared-purchase plan among government agencies.

Savings are also being realized, Lake said, by moving some health-care delivery out of hospitals and into clinics, like the North Kamloops clinic providing dialysis to Kamloopsians, through outpatient services and through at-home visits, such as those Lake’s 82-year-old father receives from an occupational therapist in his Kelowna apartment.

There’s still work to be done, Lake said, noting rural and remote regions continue to provide a challenge, despite the fact there are now 1,605 doctors in those areas, a seven per cent increase from 2009-2010.

Emergency rooms remain congested despite more money being put into the health system, Lake said, and health care itself is more about processes and bureaucracy than about patients and their care.

“We don’t need more [hospital] beds. We need to shift to a community-based deliver of service. We need to use the beds we have more effectively.”

Lake said perhaps a conversation is needed with private clinics to determine how they can work within the public health-care system to help it run more smoothly.

Earlier in the day, Lake announced an infusion of cash into a program that provides non-medical supports to seniors, ideally helping them remain independent in their own homes longer.

The Better at  Home program, run by United Way organizations throughout the province, will receive an additional $2 million to the $22 million it has already received to run the program in 60 communities, including Kamloops.

The province’s new seniors’ advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, said the money is welcome because “most seniors want to help themselves and others.

“It is all of our responsibility to ensure they have the tools, supports and services to realize their full potential.”

Mackenzie was in Kamloops to take part in a seniors symposium hosted by Oncore, a Kamloops seniors’ support and advocacy group.

Its executive director, Suzan Goguen, also thanked Lake for the money, noting her agency sees first-hand the difference the Better at Home program makes in people’s lives.