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Mayor not optimistic VCH will fund two orthopedic surgeons for corridor

Whistler's mayor is not optimistic that the region's health authority will listen to the increasingly adamant pleas in the corridor to keep funding two orthopedic surgeon positions.

Whistler's mayor is not optimistic that the region's health authority will listen to the increasingly adamant pleas in the corridor to keep funding two orthopedic surgeon positions.

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden explained her pessimism on the heels of Friday's annual local governance meeting with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which included elected officials from the Sea to Sky corridor and officials from the health authority.

When the mayor asked senior officials point blank if the health authority would replace retiring surgeon Dr. Pat McConkey with another full-time orthopedic surgeon in the corridor, she got no definitive answer.

"They confirmed that that was one option," said Wilhelm-Morden.

"They didn't give us a hint as to what the preferred option was going to be."

Her gut feeling, however, was that the status quo of funding two orthopedic surgeons would not be maintained.

VCH public affairs officer Trudi Beutel said Friday's meeting was an opportunity to have face-to-face information sharing with stakeholders.

"These meetings allow elected representatives to tell us what they're hearing from their constituents related to health care, and provide a forum for open, back-and-forth discussion," she said.

Both Whistler and Squamish councils reinforced their message Tuesday night.

Whistler council unanimously voted to instruct staff to send a letter on behalf of mayor and council to Kip Woodward, chair of VCH, strongly encouraging the health authority to replace McConkey with a full-time local orthopedic surgeon.

Squamish council passed a motion at its Tuesday meeting supporting the continued funding of two resident orthopedic surgeons in the corridor.

Other corridor partners have been rallying to save current levels of orthopedic service as the countdown clock to McConkey's retirement ticks down. Any replacement will cost the health authority roughly $150,000 more per year because McConkey uses a less expensive and more traditional technique than his newer contemporaries.

Wilhelm-Morden is worried about the ramifications to the quality of life in the corridor should VCH decide to replace McConkey with a rotation of visiting orthopedic surgeons from the city.

"The consistency of care will be undermined conceivably," she said. "The number of surgeries performed at the Squamish General Hospital may well be reduced and shifted to the Lions Gate (Hospital) and that can have potentially a domino effect because if the anesthesiologists aren't getting regular work, they will be moving elsewhere."

It also means there will be no peer support for the one remaining full-time orthopedic surgeon in the corridor, Dr. Alexandra Brooks-Hill.

"We could be a victim of the rural isolation issues we see elsewhere," said Wilhelm-Morden.

Friday's meeting included elected officials from Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton and together they presented a united front in the fight to maintain orthopedic services.

"I thought it was pretty significant," said Squamish Mayor Rob Kirkham, of the united position.

The topic, he added, dominated the meeting.

Whistler's mayor also commented on the fact that corridor partners presented a collective response. "I think one of the reasons why there is a united front is because all of us recognize the valuable asset that we have in the Squamish General Hospital and we don't want to see that undermined in any way," said Wilhelm-Morden.

In an earlier statement to the

Pique, VCH's Beutel said the authority is "committed to supporting a reasonable vision for orthopedic care in Sea to Sky that will fit with the unique needs of the corridor's residents and visitors.

"That hasn't changed, and we are continuing to work toward this goal."

The VCH Coastal Orthopedic Working Group, which includes surgeons and operational leads from Squamish General Hospital and Lions Gate Hospital, is set to make its recommendation this week. A final decision is expected later this spring.