Community members received a mail-out last weekend from the United Church Health Services Society (UCHSS) detailing the termination of their affiliation agreement with Vancouver Coastal Health. The transfer of all programs and services from UCHSS to VCH will be complete by June 2014.
Although VCH’s present agreement with the UCHSS dates back to 2001, the United Church has provided health care on B.C.’s central coast for 124 years. For the first 60 years it was largely funded by the church. In 1889, Dr. Albert Bolton traveled by boat throughout the Central Coast offering medicine and surgeries. He started the first hospital in River’s Inlet, and in 1902 a new seven-bed hospital was built in Bella Bella.
In 1927, the embattled Bella Coola Hospital Board asked the United Church of Canada to take over its operations. Fast-forward to the 1990s, when local hospital boards were fighting to keep local, community control of health. In 2001 the province proposed streamlining administration into ‘super-boards,’ and the denominational facilities, which included the United Church hospitals, managed to retain local, community control with their own hospital boards in affiliation with a health authority.
Although the United Church was once responsible for 32 hospitals in isolated locations across Canada, this latest termination will see United Church hospitals reduced to just two: Hazelton, B.C., and Lamont, Alberta.
While UCHSS Board Chair Lynn Nelson is saddened to see the agreement end, she is also very proud of the work that the United Church has done on behalf of the people of the Central Coast.
“The United Church has a long-time, significant relationship with the communities of the Central Coast,” said Nelson. “The patients we serve are our neighbours, friends, colleagues, and family, and yet we maintain an impeccable record of confidentiality and professionalism.”
“Our team initiated programs for the recruitment and retention of rural physicians and other staff 40 years ago – far ahead of other health institutions in Canada,” Nelson continued. “Our most valuable contribution has been employing such a gifted, committed team of care professionals, over such a significant history – from before the flu of 1918, to after the 1980s AIDS crisis. We are very proud of our record of offering our communities world-class health care, in a rural, isolated setting.”
VCH did not consult directly with the community before the decision, but its executives and staff did meet with Bella Coola General Hospital Council, staff, physicians, and the Nuxalk Nation Chief and Council earlier in August to begin the transition in Bella Coola and Bella Bella.
VCH claims that the reason for the termination is to provide better governance and services to the two hospitals on the Central Coast. “We want to thank United Church Health Services for their work and partnership,” said Anna Marie D’Angelo, Senior Media Relations Officer with VCH. “However, this transition is necessary for simplifying governance within the region.”
Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer with VCH, maintains that present services will be maintained and improved, and all UCHSS staff will see their contracts transferred to VCH, with no reductions in staffing.
“The services will stay the same and we expect they will improve,” said Dr. Daly. “This transition will allow us to access more expertise from the VCH region, which may result in more visits from specialists and other VCH staff.” Daly also confirmed that services such as Mental Health’s popular TeleHealth service and the Express Tickets would remain unchanged.
Nelson says she understands VCH’s need to streamline operations and supports their intention to listen to the communities, but also feels that the valuable role the UCHSS played in advocating for the community cannot be underestimated.
“It is our deepest hope that the transition from UCHSS to VCH is a smooth and positive experience for Bella Bella and Bella Coola. We understand that VCH is wanting to involve the community in the planning and delivery of health services in a very real way,” said Nelson. “UCHSS will no longer be in Bella Bella and Bella Coola, but the United Church of Canada will continue to advocate for these communities – and for just and equitable health care for all Canadians.”
Dr. Daly says she understands community concern over the loss of the UCHSS advocacy role, but says that VCH is committed to community engagement, and that the process of community engagement is set to begin this fall.
“VCH does manage a number of other rural areas, so we do understand the unique challenges of delivering services in remote locations,” she said. “However, we are committed to a community consultation process with Bella Coola and Bella Bella to get a better sense of what’s working and what needs to be improved.”
Another key factor in the termination of the agreement with the UCHSS is the growing role of the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). The FNHA was established in 2007 and works with B.C. First Nations, government partners, and others to improve health outcomes for B.C. aboriginals.
Mandated by a number of health agreements and direction given by B.C. First Nations leadership, the FNHA will soon be responsible for steering the healthcare delivery of First Nations people in B.C.
“I cannot comment directly on the role of the FNHA, but VCH does have a partnership accord with the FNHA to improve the health of aboriginal people within our region,” Dr. Daly confirmed. “There is some overlap in services, and VCH is still responsible for much of the healthcare services utilized by First Nations people, but the important thing about the FNHA is that it gives First Nations people control over their healthcare resources.”
The FNHA, which will take over for Health Canada as of October 1, will plan, design, manage, and fund the delivery of First Nations health programs and services in B.C. These community-based services are largely focused on health promotion and disease prevention.
While specifics of the new system are not yet concrete, the point is that - for the first time in Canada - First Nations people will design and deliver their own healthcare which is set to their standards and aimed at addressing their objectives.
Doug Kelly, grand chief of B.C.’s Sto:lo Tribal Council also chairs the First Nations Health Council, which advocates for the FNHA. He said the FNHA will do a better job of ensuring that proper health care is delivered to B.C. aboriginals, about 60,000 of whom live on reserves.
“You’ve got a service model that will change over time,” Kelly said. “Under the present system, services are not delivered effectively and consistently at a high standard to First Nations. I’m proud of the work we’re doing. We’re leading the way.”
Locally, VCH is expected to begin community consultation this fall. The Coast Mountain News will continue to provide updates as they become available.