Health care continues to absorb about 40 per cent of the province’s spending amid the pandemic, with new money in the 2022-2023 budget earmarked for surgeries and diagnostic scans, urgent and primary care centres, and paramedics and emergency dispatchers.
An extra $3.2 billion is dedicated over three years to “build an even stronger health and mental health-care system for British Columbians,” said Finance Minister Selina Robinson on Tuesday as she unveiled the new fiscal plan at the Victoria Conference Centre.
The overall health-care budget is projected to grow from $23.8 billion in 2021-2022 to $27 billion in 2024-2025.
As part of that three-year fiscal plan, the province has budgeted $57 million in operating costs for an additional 10 urgent and primary care centres (UPCCs) in B.C. by 2024-2025. That will bring the total number of UPCCs to 50, up from 26, including six on the Island.
The Health Ministry has yet to announce locations for the additional UPCCS. The latest UPCC on the south Island opened in December at 890 Esquimalt Rd. and offers same-day urgent care for patients from Esquimalt and neighbouring View Royal. Once it’s fully operational, the province has said patients without a regular doctor or nurse practitioner should be able to be attached to a primary care provider.
Every UPCC comes with a capital cost of about $4 million.
There is also $148 million in new funding in the budget to hire 125 paramedics and 30 dispatchers in the province to reduce emergency call waits and response times. Many Islanders told harrowing stories last year of phoning 911, only to be put on hold for the ambulance dispatcher to pick up.
Another $300 million is earmarked over three years for more surgeries and diagnostic scans. Waitlists for surgeries have increased amid the pandemic, as the province had to postpone thousands of scheduled non-urgent surgeries due to COVID-19 hospital admissions.
Last week, Health Minister Adrian Dix said patients are starting to get their postponed surgeries, though there will continue to be some postponements.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said COVID-19-related hospital admissions have peaked but remain high.
An additional $875 million is set aside in the budget for 2022-2023 for pandemic-recovery contingencies, including ongoing COVID-19 and influenza vaccination programs and personal protective equipment, including masks.
The estimated cost of personal protective equipment by the end of the fiscal year in 2021-2022 is $100 million to $120 million, while the cost of COVID vaccinations is expected to be $550 million, including vaccination sites, staff and call centres. The vaccine itself was provided by the federal government and was free to provinces and those receiving it.
Island Health receives 16.7 per cent or $2.9 billion of the forecast $18.9 billion for health-care authorities and hospital societies.
Mike Old of the Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents about 50,000 health care workers, including care aides, applauded the 6.6 per cent increase in core health spending in 2022-2023 and a commitment to fund training for more care aides through the Health Career Access Program. However, Old said that 6.6 per cent lift needs to continue in the years following.
The B.C. Nurses’ Union was pleased by a weekend announcement of 602 new nurse-education seats — from psychiatric nurses and nurse practitioners to licensed practical nurses wanting to train as registered nurses. That’s in addition to the 2,000 existing seats in nursing programs across the province.
Some of the new seats will be on Vancouver Island at Camosun College, the University of Victoria, North Island College and Vancouver Island University.
Nurses’ union president Aman Grewal said the training seats were a promising step toward solving the staffing crisis, but added the budget offered no specifics on recruitment and retention. “There’s no robust health human resources plan that’s been laid out,” said Grewal in an interview.
Grewal said the province needs to tell nurses exactly what they are investing in. “What’s the plan, show us a plan.”
“Talk to us and let us know what it is that you are thinking of doing and ... work together to improve the lives of our members in terms of work-life balance, the extra overtime that they’ve been having to do — extended shifts and mandatory overtime.”
In a May 2021 survey by the B.C. Nurses’ Union, 35 per cent of respondents said the impact of the pandemic meant they were more likely to leave nursing within two years. Workplace health and safety was also a priority, along with mental health supports for nurses and unrestrained access to personal protective equipment.
The B.C. Greens noted positive investments such as core funding for sexual assault centres, but cited items that were not in the budget, including expansion of safe-drug- supply and harm-reduction measures, funding to support family doctors providing lifelong care, expansion of mental health services and recognition of the importance of preventive health care.