Politics

BC premier vows to improve cancer care system amid patient pressure

David Eby’s NDP government has been under pressure to reduce cancer care wait times amid story after story from cancer patients who either died while waiting for treatment or paid privately for treatment in the U.S.

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Premier David Eby concedes that B.C. has to do more to respond to unacceptable cancer care wait times that are currently among the longest in the country.

In a year-end interview with Postmedia on Thursday, Eby addressed the frustration and angst of cancer patients and their families who say they were let down by a cancer care system that is so backlogged, some patients have died while waiting for treatment.

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While Eby committed to publicly release information on the wait times to see an oncologist and for chemotherapy, he dismissed the need for a public reporting tool that would provide up-to-date information on the waiting times for various stages of the cancer care process and that would measure how the province is doing nationally and internationally.

“I think that for British Columbians knowing that there are wait times, but understanding that we’re going in the right direction, is critical,” Eby said from his office in the legislature.

Asked about whether B.C. would consider a cancer quality council similar to what exists in Ontario, Eby said comparing B.C.’s cancer wait times to other provinces is “pretty cold comfort” to British Columbians “if you’re still not able to get the care.”

“The dominant metrics that we need to be looking to is making sure that people are getting treatment within the treatment windows that are prescribed by best practice,” he said. “And that’s the standard we’re holding ourselves to.”

Ontario’s cancer quality council is a quasi-independent oversight body that reports on cancer system performance and provides international comparisons and benchmarking. Cancer care waiting times across the provinces and territories are compiled by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, but those figures are published once a year instead of in real time.

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Such a reporting tool was called for by former B.C. Cancer chief medical officer Dr. Malcolm Moore during his tenure from 2014 to 2019. During that time, he warned the Provincial Health Services Authority that it needed to do more, including hiring more cancer care specialists, to meet the projected rise in cancer patients over the next decade.

Moore said those warnings have been ignored, which is why the province is now dealing with a “significant failure” in the system that led to a decision to send some breast and prostate cancer patients to the U.S. for radiation therapy.

For the last month, Postmedia has been telling the stories of British Columbians like Dan Quayle, a 52-year-old Victoria man with an aggressive form of esophageal cancer who opted for a medically assisted death as his wait dragged on for chemotherapy, and a 43-year-old Parksville woman named Loni Atwood who said B.C. Cancer elected to monitor her adrenal cancer instead of start preventative chemotherapy which she believes allowed tumours to spread to her lungs.

Cancer patients have also gone public about their decision to pay privately for treatment in Bellingham because they had lost faith in the B.C. system. They encountered health care professionals in the U.S. — some originally from B.C. — who were not as overworked and burned out as those in this province.

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Those stories and criticism from Opposition parties has amped up the pressure on the B.C. NDP government to reduce cancer care wait times.

Eby said in the short-term, the government is focusing on recruiting more radiation therapists and oncologists to speed up the delivery of cancer treatment.

“When a British Columbian is faced with a cancer diagnosis, they want to know that the care is going to be there right now. And it doesn’t help that eventually there will be a (new) cancer centre,” he said.

Postmedia reported earlier this month that six months into the provincial government’s decision to send breast cancer and prostate cancer patients to two clinics in Bellingham in Washington State to ease the treatment backlog in B.C., the province’s wait times have actually gotten worse.

Just 75 per cent of cancer patients are receiving radiation therapy within the Canadian benchmark of 28 days, according to B.C. Cancer Agency data provided to Postmedia, a drop from 77 per cent in May.

Eby stands behind the effectiveness of the Bellingham program and said, “If we need to find additional resources in the United States, we’re prepared to do that because people deserve that cancer care.”

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He said the province is “fighting a battle on cancer” at a time when it is also seeing a 16-per-cent increase in demand for cancer care due to an aging and growing population.

“And, unfortunately, decisions were made (by the former B.C. Liberal government) when the warnings were initially sounded in 2012 to sell hospital land instead of building the new Surrey hospital, for example, where there’s going to be a new cancer care clinic. So we are playing catch-up, but we’re working hard to make sure we deliver that care for people.”

Kevin Falcon, leader of B.C. United, formerly called the B.C. Liberals, said the cancer care system has deteriorated from one in the best in Canada to one of the worst after “years of lack of action.”

Falcon, who held several high-profile B.C. Liberal cabinet positions between 2001 and 2013 including health minister in 2009 to 2010, accepted that the former B.C. Liberal party has to take “its share of responsibility.”

But he asked why the B.C. NDP government, which has been in power for seven years, waited until this February to unveil its 10-year cancer plan, which includes $440 million in spending in the first three years and new cancer care centres for Nanaimo, Surrey, Burnaby and Kamloops.

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Falcon called it “one of the worst plans I’ve ever seen.”

“It has no timelines, no deliverables, no key performance indicators, no accountability mechanisms. That’s not a plan. That’s just paper.”

The new cancer care centre in Kamloops promised by the New Democrats in the 2017 election has yet to break ground, Falcon said.

He slammed Health Minister Adrian Dix for “micromanaging” and installing an administrative bureaucracy that “gets in the way of actually getting things done.”

Falcon said the best thing the government can do to improve the cancer care system is give the resources needed to B.C. Cancer and “get the politicians the hell out of the way.”

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