By Loreth Beswetherick
The Sea to Sky Community Health Council hopes to have the Whistler Health Care Centre upgraded from its current classification as a diagnostic and treatment facility to a Level 4 treatment centre, or something in between, by next ski season.
That would mean the base funding formula for the Whistler Health Care Centre would be adjusted and there would be more cash from the Ministry of Health for operating costs.
Fran Cuthbert, chair of the Sea to Sky Community Health Council, said the Whistler facility, under its current classification, receives a zero per cent funding increase. She said the volumes handled by the centre, plus the population growth, in the area have not been recognized by the province. The Whistler Health Care Centre is funded in the same way as a rural health care facility but it operates as both a high level trauma centre for up to 100 patients per day as well as a community health centre for local residents.
The Whistler centre — known to resemble a MASH unit on some winter weekends — is in fact the sixth busiest emergency department in British Columbia. And that, said Cuthbert, hardly makes it a diagnostic and treatment facility.
"A change in purpose of the health centre would be significant for the health council and the community," she said. "It would give us more operations funds to look at an increase in hours during peak seasons, an increase to the area for trauma care, the completion of unfinished space upstairs and the moving of some administrative services to the upstairs area."
Cuthbert made a presentation to Whistler council Monday, March 20 and received council endorsement for her request that the ministry of health review the role and purpose of the Whistler centre with a view to changing the classification and to upgrading the facility.
Cuthbert said she has had a commitment from the deputy minister of health, Leah Hollins, to review the Whistler facility and its role. "We feel very confident that we can accomplish this change. It is increasingly more imperative that the health centre needs to expand the emergency and trauma area in order to accommodate the high volumes and to continue to deliver the level of trauma care that is required."
Cuthbert said a change in classification will help expedite the expansion of the Whistler Health Care Centre. She said the health council had included the expansion proposal — at a cost of around $1.5 million — in an earlier capital plan submission to the ministry but did not get approval. She said the health council does not have a current cost estimate for the expansion but the project is now being broken down into smaller components. A heating and ventilation component, for example, will likely win approval this year. It is part of a heating and ventilation plan for Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton health care facilities but Cuthbert said it will knock some dollars off the overall cost of the upgrade.
The Whistler Health Care Foundation has also set aside $240,000 to go towards the expansion. Cuthbert said the most immediate need for the centre is to expand the downstairs triage area and create separate urgent care space. The ambulance area, for example, is a high-level trauma area and needs to be separated from the walk-in triage. Cuthbert said holding beds are also needed for patients who are waiting to be transferred out or who are waiting for a report back. "You don’t want those people staying in the high-level trauma triage area," said Cuthbert. "So that is our immediate need. We also need to get some of those administrative functions, like stores and maybe the staff room, located upstairs so that we can expand the downstairs and create holding space."
She said the project will likely be phased in over a three year period.
There has been some fiscal relief recently for the health council, however. The Ministry of Health announced an extra $900,000 for operating costs. This will enable the council to balance its budget for the first time since it was mandated to look after health care needs in this region three years ago. Cuthbert said that $900,000 is being given in recognition for the volumes that have been handled over the past three years plus the programs and services provided.
"We finally had some up-to-date and current information we could supply them with so that they could acknowledge our volumes and programs," said Cuthbert.
"We have always started each year in a deficit and we have been working on advances from the ministry."
She said the $900,000 will basically go to eliminating the debt load. The ministry has also made a commitment to $400,000 in initial base funding for next year.
"We should be able to balance our budget and have some operating start up money for the next physical year," Cuthbert said.
The health council has, in the meantime, been approached by private clinics looking to form partnerships in the Whistler area. There has been some dialogue with the Cambie and the False Creek surgical clinics, for example, but Cuthbert said master planning needs to be completed before those talks can happen.
"Yes, we are interested but at this point in time we are not in a position to be negotiating with private clinics until we have completed our planning process and know what our plan and volumes are before we can look at creating any kind of OR space for them in the Whistler Health Care Centre," said Cuthbert.
"Absolutely, those discussions could follow. It may be something as simple as partnering with them, and them using OR space in Squamish because we do have orthopedic programs in Squamish. We don’t know what it will look like yet."
The master plan for the region is just about wrapped up and was due to go to the health council for approval at their March 23 business meeting.
"So far it has the endorsement of pretty well everybody and we will be doing our strategic planning on March 24 and 25. After that we will be coming out with the master plan."
That plan will essentially be a vision for health service delivery in the Sea to Sky corridor for the next 10 years. The capital component of the plan must be submitted to the Ministry of Health for approval by June 15, 2000.