Anesthesiologists’ dispute and shortage may impact KBRH

Withdrawl of anesthesiologists could impact patients in the Greater Trail Region, says Dr. Robert Halpenny of the IHA

People who have been on the wait list for surgery in the West Kootenay-Boundary could have a longer wait after April 2.

Not only are the province’s specialist anesthesiologists threatening to withdraw their services to all but emergency and urgent patients after their contract expires Saturday, the five-person department at Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital will be operating at less than capacity.

As a result, elective procedures and surgeries may be impacted as part of the job action because some anesthesiologists have said they will not provide support for elective surgeries.

Unfortunately, job action could impact people in the Greater Trail region, said Dr. Robert Halpenny, president and CEO of the Interior Health Authority. Patients affected by a service withdrawal have been sent letters to notify them of the possibility that their surgery may be postponed.

These letters are not the formal notification of surgical cancellation, Dr. Halpenny explained.

“Obviously … each anesthetist has a personal choice on whether they withdraw their services or not,” he said. “As soon as possible that we know the anesthetists are not there, we notify patients that their procedure would be postponed.”

Meanwhile, the B.C. government responded to the potential services withdrawal on Thursday with a legal warning to anesthesiologists.

Lawyers for health authorities have filed an application for an interim injunction to prevent any service withdrawal, and have also filed a civil claim that could be used against any doctor found in breach of their contract.

There will be no postponements for patients needing emergency or urgent surgery.

However, the situation at the KBRH grows more pressing.

Three weeks ago a specialist anesthesiologist resigned from the department at KBRH, effective in mid June, and another vacancy has existed since last June, moves that will leave a vacancy of two in the five-person department this summer.

But the department, along with local and regional administration in Interior Health Authority that oversees KBRH, has been successful in recruiting someone to fill the first permanent full-time position opening.

Dr. Halpenny said an anesthetist from New Zealand has been recruited for the KBRH for August — meaning they will only be short one position. An active recruitment campaign is still ongoing to fill out the full complement in the department, he added.

“It is my hope that by the time this individual comes, this situation will be solved between the province and the anesthesiologists,” he said.

The anesthesiology department is required to provide seamless, 24-hour, seven-day-per-week coverage of elective and emergency anesthesia care to the 100,000 inhabitants of the Kootenay Boundary.

In December the B.C. Anesthesiologists’ Society (BCAS) said they would start withdrawing services to all but emergency and urgent patients after their contract expired March 31 if the province did not bargain directly with the society, rather than the B.C. Medical Association. Dr. Jeff Rains, president of the BCAS, said at the time the society voted 98 per cent in favour of the move.

Currently, the province has refused to negotiate directly with the society, preferring to use third-party group B.C. Medical Association (BCMA). However, months-long negotiations between the BCMA and government have been classified as “rocky at times.”

At issue is a claim by anesthesiologists — who are paid a fee for service — they are the lowest paid and hardest working in Canada, while the province says they aren’t.

As well, anesthesiologists say their dispute is also about recruitment, retention and shortages, while provincial Health Minister Mike de Jong claims there are vacancies across the province and there were 125 active, qualified and licensed anesthesiologists who were looking for work in B.C.

The provincial government spends about $115 million a year on fees for anesthesiologists. Anesthesiologists provide services to more than 500,000 patients each year in B.C.