Worried about access to assisted dying, group seeks more secular care in Comox Valley

A group of residents is calling for secular long-term and hospice care in the Comox Valley, since medical assistance in dying has been denied at faith-based facilities.

The Equal Access Committee has collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition directed at Island Health and the provincial Ministry of Health.

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“It is imperative that valley citizens who desire medical assistance in dying … be able to do so without encountering faith-based restrictions or transfers imposed by the institution providing the care,” the petition says.

The valley has four hospice beds, all in a residential care facility run by St. Joseph’s General Hospital, which as a Catholic facility does not allow medical assistance in dying.

St. Joseph’s is expanding its focus on residential care as it hands acute-care responsibilities to the new Comox Valley Hospital, opening this fall.

It told the Times Colonist in April that its longer-term plan involves merging with Providence Health Care, a Catholic health-care organization that runs 17 facilities, and Glacier View Lodge, a secular care home with 102 beds.

Together, they would create a “campus of care” on St. Joseph’s 17-acre property, with everything from seniors’ housing to hospice care.

Such a move would increase the proportion of residential-care beds in faith-based facilities in the valley, raising concerns that fewer residents would have access to assisted dying.

The petition calls on the Health Ministry to prevent the transfer of assets and/or operations of residential care facility Glacier View Lodge to a faith-based organization, for any new residential care beds created in the Comox Valley to be granted to a secular institution, and for all six community hospice beds to be located together on a secular site.

Retiree Reg Crone said he wanted to help form the Equal Access Committee because as a senior, he might want the ability to access the right to medical assistance in dying in the future.

“We were concerned with what was happening here in the valley, where it appeared that Providence Health Care was about to take over St. Joseph’s and a secular facility called Glacier View, in which case [the Catholic organization] would dominate residential care in the valley, plus control the hospice beds in the valley,” Crone said.

Island Health lists two secular facilities in the valley: the 136-bed Comox Valley Seniors Village and the 66-bed Cumberland Lodge.

The Equal Access Committee is holding a public forum to discuss the future of seniors residential and hospice care in the Comox Valley on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Comox Community Centre.

It is also sending delegates to Island Health’s board of directors meeting Thursday in Victoria.

Island Health is planning to add two more hospice beds to the region, but has not determined a location.

“We’re committed to having those beds in a location that allows access to all palliative and end-of-life services, including medical assistance in dying,” said Elin Bjarnason, executive lead for end-of-life and medical quality at Island Health.

Island Health is also “in conversation” with St. Joseph’s regarding the existing four hospice beds, but Bjarnason could not give further details.

The aim is to have the two new beds open by April 2018, “so I would hope we can have a decision on those beds by September,” she said.

While St. Joseph’s has been criticized by some for not providing medical assistance in dying, Bjarnason said the organization provides excellent service.

“They do provide excellent care,” she said. “This is a challenging issue.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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