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No bad patients

International visitors fund much of Whistler Health Care Centre’s budget

Almost 70 per cent of Whistler Health Care Centre’s annual operating budget comes from foreign visitors’ medical bills, according to Vancouver Coastal Health Authority records.

About $1.1 million, 68 per cent of the centre’s $1.6 million annual operating budget, came from 4,670 international patients who were treated at the centre last year. The 15-bed facility saw 21,739 patients in total in 2005. The centre has a trauma bay, four triage stretchers and a procedure room and deals with more trauma patients than Banff, Alberta or Vail, Colorado, both of which have full-service hospitals.

Last week B.C.’s Minister of Health made newspaper headlines across the country when he complained about hundreds of foreigners skipping out on medical bills for health care received in this province. George Abbott said he supported the idea of visitors being stopped at Canadian border crossings and asked to pay unpaid bills before being allowed into Canada as a method for health authorities to recoup lost revenue.

“It looks like an appropriate and promising way to recover some of those costs which have not been returned and I have asked my deputies to contact all the health authorities so they can secure similar broad-scale recoveries,” Abbott was quoted as saying in the July 3 Vancouver Sun.

But unlike Vancouver Island and Interior Health Authorities that failed to collect almost $3 million from international visitors, Whistler Health Care Centre had less than one per cent bad debt from international visitors in 2005.

“The nature of the Whistler Health Care Centre, which has no admitted in-patients, is likely the biggest reason for the small percentage of bad debt,” said Clive Camm, a spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

The centre’s foundation head says the low number of unpaid bills has more to do with efficiency.

“It’s a routine thing for the staff of the Whistler Health Care Centre to see a lot of out-of-country people and they’ve developed a really good system and are very conscientious,” Marni Simon said.

One of the centre’s doctors said not accepting out-of-country insurance plans is another factor.

“Basically its by credit card or cash at the time of service, and that works 99 per cent of the time,” said Dr. Adam Kendall. “We have visitors from all over the world and we can’t chase down all their insurance companies so we state right off that medical bill needs to be paid up front.”

Vancouver Coastal Health was careful to point out that Whistler patients receive appropriate care regardless of their financial situation.

"VCH will never deny or withdraw care to any patient, regardless of where they come from or whether or not they have the ability to pay if necessary,” said Camm.

International visitors also do more than just pay their bills. This year the American Friends of Whistler, a group of Whistler homeowners and visitors, donated $50,000 toward the health care centre’s purchase of a bedside ultrasound machine. The machine assists physicians in diagnosing severity of abdominal or chest cavity fluid levels.