Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged to hundreds of local politicians across B.C. that "there is a challenge in health care" but stopped short of making specific promises or offering new dollars to address the growing number of hospital closures and doctor and paramedic shortages.
"We are capable of responding," said Dix at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler, after spending much of the time speaking about the province's response to the pandemic.
"I have heard the term health crisis. Just so we understand: we've been in a health care crisis since at least March of 2020."
While Dix argued that B.C.'s response was "the best in the world," he admitted the province faced a number of challenges with current shortages stemming from an aging and growing population.
To that end, he said, the province needed to train more people, reduce barriers to care, make it easier for pharmacists and internationally-trained doctors to contribute to the system and make changes to the pay system.
"These are things we can do together," said Dix.
"We need to be able to say that we are committed to our public health-care system."
Dix says the number of people without a family doctor has grown from about 340,000 in 2003 to 908,000 in 2017 and is expected to be higher this year.
As a "first step," the government announced last month $118 million in interim funding to support family doctors.
'The eye-roll emoji"
Dix's speech received some applause from the mayors and councillors in attendance.
But a number of leaders in smaller communities have said more action is urgently needed.
"The time for planning and consultation and reports and meetings is over," said Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden.
"I've been sitting in health-care planning meetings for my entire four years as mayor. We keep hearing about the changes in the primary care model and the patient network, how great they'll be for Ashcroft. I'm at the point where I say, 'Wonderful. If they're so great, why haven't we put them in place yet?'"
Roden is part of a group of rural mayors that has formed a coalition to ask for changes in the delivery of health-care services and has been skeptical of provincial pledges so far.
"I think my most often used emoji is the eye-roll emoji, and it's completely for this reason," said Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who, after Dix's speech, talked about how Clearwater's emergency department has been closed 60 times this year.
"Adrian Dix and the Health Ministry are a top-down organization … we have crisis issues that we can actually solve at the ground level."
Short-term solutions tricky
Dix's plenary came during a municipal government conference where much of the time has been devoted to discussing concerns over shortages in affordable housing, mental health providers and doctors, nurses and paramedics.
Gaby Wickstrom, the mayor of Port McNeill, said that "writing a cheque for the sake of writing it isn't going to help the problem."
"If you're going to throw money at it, I want to see a plan. I want to see exactly what situation it's going to help remedy and how you feel those dollars are going to help."
Former health care minister and current consultant George Abbott said that "quick fixes are really tough to come by in a system that is typically very resistant to change."
But Abbott raised a number of options, including increasing pay, finding ways to bring back recently retired health-care workers and exploring best practices from other provinces on international recruitment of doctors.
After the session, Dix said an announcement around ambulance care "likely would have [been] done that ... but for the very sad passing of the Queen."
And he defended the lack of promises overall.
"What this was was a serious discussion. It wasn't a stage for announcements," he said.
"I make announcements when we're ready to do so, when we've talked to everyone, when we engage with everyone, and then we deliver.
"This isn't about show, this is about doing, and that's what I'm about."