Successive federal governments have long been chastized for not alertly recognizing the relentless “greying” of Canada, and laying the timely groundwork for meeting it head-on.
The alarming litany of bed shortages has become a nation-wide plague. Yukoners are now experiencing the consequences of governmental ill- preparation.
NDP MLA Kate White recently raised the poignant anecdote of a senior being moved out of her Whitehorse General Hospital (WGH) room – against her will – for transfer to one of the rural hospitals.
Looking on in anguish was the senior sharing the room, fearfully wondering if a similar fate awaited her, White told the legislature.
There’s no question that astute medical care criteria and good judgment form the decisions to move some patients to the Dawson City or Watson Lake hospitals.
Equally true is that some have resented what they see as being treated like banished checkers on a squared board.
They frequently know no one in these communities, and are often separated from family members and friends.
Those Yukoners face long, expensive drives, accommodation costs and heavy time commitments to maintain contact with their loves ones.
But should the “inconvenience” factor usurp the interests of someone who can’t undergo needed surgery because there’s no bed available at WGH?
The debate about balancing the rights of various patients with differing requirements understandably roils with emotion.
Regardless, any residual anger shouldn’t be directed at physicians, WGH staff, nor Yukon Hospital Corp. executives. The discontent permeating today’s avoidable predicament should be laid at the feet of past governments’ decisions and acute lack of farsightedness.
This nub of the problem was alluded to by distinguished members of the Seniors Action Yukon group writing in the Star on Nov. 17.
No one is suggesting the challenge of developing a sufficient number of long-term care facility beds has been foolishly and callously ignored for the past generation.
The Thomson Centre was built in the early 1990s – but was soon crippled by shoddy construction practices and rendered useless for accommodating patients. The fiasco cost taxpayers several million dollars in repairs.
Copper Ridge Place opened a decade ago, and several rural communities saw new care facilities built during the last several years.
The Yukon Party government began constructing the Whistle Bend centre, but its successor has capped the number of beds at 150, down from the original vision of 300. As well, the pending closure of the Macaulay Lodge will eat into the net gain of beds.
The previous government also took swift measures to open up a small number of additional beds. That only occurred, however, after an urgent, articulate call to arms by respected surgeon David Storey, published in the Star during the summer of 2016.
The current government, meanwhile, raised the annual home care budget by more than $700,000 in this fiscal year’s budget. Governments everywhere have been late to the game in recognizing the essential role of home care services in modern society, but the territory is moving in the right direction in this sphere.
As they contemplate today’s difficulties, Yukoners might mull some blunt questions.
Why, in the early 1990s, did the government reduce the size of the new WGH that had been provided for in the original design plans?
Why was the number of beds reduced by almost half compared to the estimated 90 the previous 1950s-era building had offered? After all, this was – and is – a territory forecast to grow, not contract, in population, economic activity and medical demands.
Even if the government hadn’t seen the need for more beds at the time of construction, why wasn’t additional, initially empty space incorporated into the building to use for beds in the long-term future?
(Speaking of space limitations, was there no realization that, as modern medical technology improved and the hospital matured, new equipment would be acquired to provide expanded services – and need sufficient additional space?
In the same vein, why was the emergency department – now the destination for 34,000 visits per year – confined to such compact quarters, with a glaring lack of privacy that has discomforted so many people, eventually necessitating a $75-million expansion?
This design work, after all, was done as recently as the early 1990s, not the more naive and less enlightened era of the 1940s!)
Statistics Canada and the Yukon Bureau of Statistics have long produced comprehensive demographic data on the steady aging of the population.
Meanwhile, the trend of Yukon families bringing aging parents here to take advantage of the tremendous benefits is not a new phenomenon.
What was the calibre of the planning done years ago to avoid foisting inappropriate responsibilities onto the hospital and its staff?
Did the bureaucracy of the day present accurate forecasts about long-term care requirements to the politicians in control?
If not, why not? If so, what was the fate of that crucial information at the cabinet level?
Perhaps those who presided over the seeds that have germinated into today’s tensions did their best.
The dubious decisions of an earlier time weren’t made by near-flawless computers, and the failing of shortsightedness is part of being human.
But try selling that rationale to an elderly Whitehorse resident who, after paying taxes for a lifetime, has been shunted to the hospital in Watson Lake.
That person would no doubt remind us that people elect governments, and premiers appoint ministers and deputy ministers of health, to stave off the type of serious scenario that reigns today.
Clearly, this is a case of the systemic failure of past governance. And the retrospective accountability factor, of course, is non-existent.
The ramifications bequeathed to Yukoners include:
• a WGH frequently functioning at 95- to 115-per-cent capacity when the ideal level is 75 per cent;
• patients obliged to spend part of their post-op recovery time in the emergency ward or even a corridor; and
• patients spending weeks at rural facilities as far as 530 kilometres from Whitehorse.
The challenge now is to employ the marvelous phenomenon of hindsight to help ensure future generations aren’t subjected to the policy breakdowns the current generation has been.
Yet, there is little reason to believe today’s concerns will evaporate in a timely fashion.
Under opposition questioning, Pauline Frost, the minister of Health and Social Services, indignantly told the legislature the government won’t use money it doesn’t have to expand the number of long-term care beds post-Whistle Bend.
To be sure, that’s sensible fiscal policy. Whistle Bend’s 150 beds alone will cost $36 million annually to operate, as revealed last month by Premier Sandy Silver.
Would adding another 150 beds to the system equate to similar annual operating costs? If so, how does a micro-society like ours deal with a $720- million bill to maintain 300 beds over 10 years?
Where does all this leave Yukoners needing care beds in 2020 and beyond?
Like rolling ocean waves, people will perennially grow older, not younger, and the demand for long-term care beds will only rise, not diminish.
The frightening costs of caring for them stand to administer a painful dose of migraines to those public officials charged with finding the money.
It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a spacious new emergency department at WGH.