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B.C. Anesthesiologists’ Society president resigns because of 'corruption in the health care system'

Nov 16 2011

The president of the B.C. Anesthesiologists’ Society has resigned, claiming the health-care system is corrupt as a bitter dispute between the specialists and the B.C. government drags on.

Dr. James Helliwell, president of the society, quit Tuesday because of what he said, in a statement, is “corruption in the health care system.

“I am a firm believer in quality care and honest relationships,” said Helliwell, in his resignation letter. “I cannot believe the complacent acceptance of poor patient safety and severely rationed access to care which is endemic in B.C.’s health system.”

Last week, the B.C. government and the provincial medical association rejected a call for binding arbitration to resolve a labour dispute with anesthesiologists.

The Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society released a letter to Premier Christy Clark last week that asked her government to consider mediation, and binding arbitration, to resolve “serious concerns for the safety and well-being of British Columbia patients.”

B.C. anesthesiologists are locked in a pay dispute with the government and the B.C. Medical Association because they say they have the highest workload but lowest compensation in Canada.

The dispute has manifested itself in a bitter public feud at Victoria General Hospital, where anesthesiologists have said the lack of a dedicated obstetric anesthesiology unit is leading to long wait times, poor service and dangerous conditions for pregnant mothers in need of emergency caesarean sections.

Dr. Helliwell writes in his resignation letter that if the government worked with the society, together they could have reduced surgical waiting lists, made better use of the billions in tax dollars spent on surgical care in B.C. and, most importantly, delivered better and timelier care to tens of thousands of suffering British Columbians.

“I've made repeated offers of consultation and co-operation, but they’ve been steadily rejected by [Health] Minister Mike de Jong and his officials,” Helliwell writes.

The B.C. Health Ministry said it has had over a dozen meetings with the society in the past three years, and many more meetings at the local health authority level to discuss their concerns.

As well, it’s committed up to $170 million in patient-focused funding in the coming years, the health ministry said.

Helliwell said his resignation will clear the way for a new leadership approach to force change.

“I am disgusted by the intransigence and denials of a provincial government which is defending the status quo at the expense of patients’ safety and quality of care,” Helliwell concluded.

The vacancy rate for anesthesiologists in B.C. has doubled in eight years to 25 per cent, the highest in Canada and well ahead of a 4.42 per cent national vacancy rate, according to an assessment by the national anesthesiologists society.

Dr. Rick Chisholm, national president, said last week: “I think someone is going to have to say that the three parties have got to sit down and resolve the problem and it may take mediation.”

But the idea was rejected by B.C.’s health ministry and the BCMA, which are both negotiating a new physician master agreement that will set rates for doctors and specialists, including anesthesiologists.

Health Minister Mike de Jong is in India and wasn’t available for comment Tuesday.

“Government remains completely committed to a fair negotiating process that serves the interests of physicians, the taxpayers and, most importantly, patients," the health ministry said in a statement, last week. "As to the call for binding arbitration, we have not yet exhausted all of the mechanisms provided under the physician master agreement regarding the B.C. Anesthesiologists' Society call for increased fees."

Currently there are six anesthesiologists vacancies advertised through HealthMatch B.C. while health authorities have an additional nine anesthesiologist vacancies posted, according to the health ministry.

Vacant positions are comprised of temporary and permanent jobs.

The ministry said the number of anesthesiologists in B.C. has increased by 31 per cent in the past 10 years — greater than the 21 per cent increase in ordinary physicians — leaving B.C. with one of the best supplies of anesthesiologists per capita in the country.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

rfshaw@timescolonist.com

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