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B.C. premier says faster progress needed on cancer care delivery

B.C. Premier David Eby says province will take every step necessary to improve wait times for referrals and treatment.
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In an year-end interview in his office at the legislature, Premier David Eby promised the government’s 10-year cancer plan will dramatically increase the resources available in the province, including four new cancer centres, one in Nanaimo. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

B.C. Premier David Eby vows in the face of unacceptable cancer care wait times the province will make every intervention — from prevention and treatment to ­clinical trials — to improve ­cancer care in the new year, conceding faster progress is needed.

The province is looking at “every opportunity” to make sure patients get the care they need, Eby said in a ­year-end interview with the Times ­Colonist.

As the NDP government faces intractable crises of ­homelessness, overdose deaths and a physician shortage, the decades-in-the-making ­challenges in cancer care have once again surfaced as a major concern.

As 2022 wound down, ­cancer patients were reported to be dying while awaiting ­treatment. Now as 2023 winds down, some late-stage cancer patients are resorting to medically assisted death before ever ­seeing an oncologist or receiving ­chemotherapy.

Parksville’s Loni Atwood, 43, with a rare late-stage cancer, told the Times Colonist this month she waited almost a year to see an oncologist, as long for chemotherapy, and was denied a spot in a clinical trial.

B.C. cancer care wait times, once some of the best in the country, have slipped to being among the worst.

Eby has said he’s not ­satisfied with the situation and that any wait times beyond benchmarks for cancer patients is ­unacceptable but notes the entire health-care system and its human resources are stretched thin in every province across the ­country and not just in cancer care.

Eby has committed in the new year to publicly release wait times for chemotherapy and wait times to see an oncologist.

Radiation therapy wait times recently fell to 75 per cent from 77 per cent of patients in the province receiving treatment within the Canadian benchmark of 28 days. It’s why the province offered eligible patients waiting too long for breast and prostate cancer treatment the option of travelling to clinics in Bellingham, Washington, all expenses paid.

“People will have seen we don’t accept that they are not able to get the care they need when they need it, that’s why we went to a private clinic in Bellingham to ensure that they would be able to access care even if it meant we had to go to a private clinic in another ­country,” said Eby.

B.C. Cancer head Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi, said the ­provincial benchmark is for everyone diagnosed with cancer to see an oncologist within four weeks of referral, and to ensure that 90 per cent of people get their chemotherapy within four weeks of referral.

Care demand on rise, as population grows and ages

Unfortunately, while Chi says Victoria’s cancer centre is close to those benchmarks, patients are “prioritized and re-­prioritized” according to urgency.

The demand for cancer care is increasing, there is an increase in late-stage cancers being diagnosed post-pandemic, and despite a massive hiring effort of radiation therapists and of 61 cancer doctors — about 10 oncologists on ­Vancouver Island — more are needed.

Stories from those falling ­outside benchmark wait times have dominated the discourse around cancer care, ­overshadowed statistics on successes, and landed at the government’s feet.

Demand for cancer care has increased 16 per cent with a growing and aging population, the premier said.

“That’s why we have a 10-year cancer plan to dramatically increase the resources available in the province,” said Eby.

That plan includes adding four cancer centres, one of them in Nanaimo.

And cancer prevention, detection and screening will be expanded in the new year in the area of gynecological cancers, particularly related to HPV and ensuring there’s access even if a woman doesn’t have a family doctor, he said.

“People will see continued interventions on a number of ­different fronts,” said Eby.

­“Everything from the people to the physical spaces where they do that work, around ­innovative and cutting-edge treatments where they are able to get access to clinical trials — that also help attract oncologists from around the world — and leveraging our life sciences ­sector in the Lower Mainland.”

The premier said he has ­confidence in B.C.’s health ­minister, Adrian Dix, and Chi to execute the province’s long‑term 10-year cancer plan as well as produce short-term results.

“It’s absolutely essential that Adrian [Dix] and Dr. Chi and B.C. Cancer deliver and that’s why we’re dedicating the resources for them to be able to do that, for them to achieve those goals,” said Eby.

“We’re seeing progress, and we need to see much faster ­progress,” said Eby.

“They know that and that’s why there’s been so much focus on ­recruiting those ­oncologists and those ­radiation technologists to be able to bring these wait times down for people.”

Traditionally, the head of the cancer agency has been a part-time role to allow the physician to continue a clinical practice and conduct research but the premier and health minister asked Chi in the fall to transition to full time to focus entirely on B.C. Cancer “to draw on some additional ­supports to ensure that we’ll get every possible opportunity to provide cancer care in the ­province.”

A new expert panel was also appointed in the fall to advise B.C. Cancer on achieving the goals of the plan.

“These administrative shifts sound technical,” said Eby, “but they can make a real difference when you have cancer experts from across North America ­looking at our system saying here’s the cutting-edge ­somewhere else and how we’re able to improve treatment outcomes to reduce the need for surgery but takes a bit of a load off the system.”

Less administration, more results needed, Falcon says

B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon said the province needs less administration and more results. He noted there are 70 vice-presidents in the health care system, each being paid more than a quarter-million dollars annually.

“It’s the results we’re getting, they are worst we’ve ever seen in the history of health care in British Columbia,” said Falcon, in a year-end interview with the Times Colonist.

“Cancer care has gone from being seen as the best in North America and British Columbia to some of the very worst in the country — we’ve got cancer patients now that are literally dying, trying to get basic care,” he said.

Falcon has been calling for Dix’s resignation: “I think that there’s got to be accountability in government.”

“I’m appalled that somebody has been the health minister for the entire seven years. It has never been worse. And he still is kept there by David Eby,” said Falcon, adding that wouldn’t fly in the private sector.

As B.C.’s health ­minister under the B.C. Liberal ­government, Falcon had said health care is the biggest ­challenge any government has and maintains that’s true today.

In 2010, Falcon introduced a GP For Me program that promised to attach everyone who wanted a family doctor to a family physician by 2015. “I was only health minister for two years,” said Falcon.

The following year the ­subsequent health minister admitted the GP For Me ­promise could not be met and it was abandoned in favour of ­matching every B.C. resident with a primary care centre. That did not happen either and the Christy Clark-led government was defeated in 2017.

Falcon said if his party is elected next year he will do things very differently in health care.

“Number one, we have to treat the health-care crisis like a crisis, so when you’re in a crisis, you have to do things ­dramatically different than the way we’ve always done them,” said Falcon.

“They came up with a cancer plan, they waited until year six of being in government before they came up with this 10-year cancer plan,” said Falcon.

Falcon said the plan doesn’t have any clear deliverable timelines or outcomes.

“That is not a plan,” he said. “That’s just a thick document that, you know, talks about all the things they’d love to do … a business plan has timelines, deliverables and holds people accountable.”

Eby maintains when people start to see shovels in the ground for hospitals and cancer centres and see wait times coming down — as he said they are starting to do — and more people secure a family doctor or primary care centre they will hopefully be more reassured that as the ­province heads closer to a Oct. 19, 2024, election, the NDP ­government plans are working.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com