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Community called to rally in 'deadly serious' rural health crisis

Wednesday, 24 June 2020. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Community called to rally in 'deadly serious' rural health crisis

By Shannon Robison

Time has quietly crept by since physicians of the Associate Clinic in Pincher Creek gave notice they would discontinue hospital-based services in July. Clinic and hosptial services will carry on as usual for now, with the change taking effect Aug. 1.

Mayor Don Anderberg and members of the Pincher Creek Health Professions Attraction and Retention Committee feel the community needs to once again come together in support of its physicians and the high standard of health care they are accustomed to, before it’s too late to effect change.

A rally, planned by the committee, will be held June 30 as an opportunity to raise local voices and bring attention to the upcoming shift in services at the hospital.

Plans are still in the works, but Scott Korbett, the organization’s secretary-treasurer and town council representative, says it will be a vehicle procession starting at Community Hall and ending in the Ranchland Mall parking lot.

Coun. Korbett says the drive-by rally is in support of local physicians who “want a fair agreement with the Alberta government, to serve the province.”

Mayor Anderberg says the situation is “deadly serious,” noting the hospital is the town’s largest employer and a significant economic driver. 

He fails to see economic sense in the outcomes related to changes in the physician funding model announced in February.

While Health Minister Tyler Shandro rolled back many of those changes on April 24, local doctors are joined by others across the province in saying trust has been lost and that a return to the negotiating table is a must if they are to reconsider cancellation of hospital duties.

All nine physicians — Dr. Cathy Scrimshaw, Dr. Tobias Gelber, Dr. Gavin Parker, Dr. Bev Burton, Dr. Tracy Burton, Dr. Jared Van Bussel, Dr. Ashley Rommens, Dr. Daniel Ruttle and Dr. Samantha Myhr — announced in late April they would discontinue extended services in July.

Since the government terminated the AMA master agreement using Bill 21 on Feb. 20, doctors have been wary, and worry that changes implemented due to public pressure could simply be discarded once the situation is no longer in the public eye.

“The whole point is that they still don’t have an agreement,” says Coun. Korbett.

Mayor Anderberg wonders how things can get started after the resulting loss of trust and respect, but reiterates the importance of getting back to meaningful conversation.

Along with Dr. Samantha Myhr, Dr. Tobias Gelber and Coun. Korbett, the mayor attended a meeting with Minister Shandro in March, which was facilitated and attended by Livingstone-Macleod MLA Roger Reid.

Over 350 letters of concern from the community were hand-delivered to the minister on March 11 by this contingency.

Coun. Korbett feels MLA Reid understands the value of rural health and appreciates his assistance in pushing the local message up through the UCP government and getting face time with the health minister.

With COVID on the minds of all, opposition has quieted down and some feel changes are being pushed through under the cover of the pandemic.

At the same time, worry over the uncertain future of the clinic, the hospital, and the community as a whole, is never out of mind for Associate Clinic physicians and staff at both locations.

The clock is ticking, and it will soon be time to turn another calendar page — to the final month before local health care sees a drastic change as doctors move to providing care from the clinic only and Alberta Health Services is tasked with staffing the hospital with doctors.

“If physician care is limited to the clinic only, the entire community loses,” says Coun. Korbett, “and that doesn’t serve the community well.”

With town council’s support, the attraction and retention committee hopes to bring the issue back to the public eye while there is still time to make a positive difference.

Mayor Anderberg, Coun. Korbett and Dr. Myhr all agree that the system currently in place in Pincher Creek works and that regionalized care, where the nearest emergency room could potentially be Lethbridge, is not in the best interest of residents.

They also know first-hand the challenges of attraction and retention in this rural setting, despite the many positives it offers.

They are of the understanding that recruiting efforts were not started until recently and are upset there is not yet a defined plan in place to make the transition.

“It seems like a game of chicken to see how far they can push,” says Mayor Anderberg.

Dr. Myhr finds this particularly frustrating. 

Local doctors know how difficult it is to find locum coverage and believe getting replacement staffing in place should have been a priority, especially with the number of communities affected by similar change.

“It’s hard to replace family docs who do a bit of everything,” she says. “Clearly they don’t understand the breadth of what we do.”

MLA Reid says AHS is working on finding replacements and is confident they will be ready for even a worst-case scenario.

“I remain certain that Pincher Creek will continue to have access to high-quality care,” he says, adding that ensuring the town continues receiving the services it currently does “is not just a goal but a responsibility.”

The skill set of the Associate Clinic’s nine doctors and the community-mindedness they demonstrate make them a strong and diverse team.

“People move here because of the health-care system,” Mayor Anderberg says, stressing the important role the present model plays in the town’s overall attractiveness as a place to live.

He hopes the rally brings further awareness to the situation. 

“It took 15 to 20 years to get to this point after the last round of ‘fixing’ health care in Alberta,” he adds.

While Dr. Myhr says the current state of affairs has left physicians feeling demoralized and with belief that matters of contention have fallen on deaf ears, she remains hopeful that government officials will pause to listen if collective voices speak loudly enough.

She believes the community still has an opportunity to make a difference and says it’s important that people understand what’s at stake.

“The noise isn’t for us,” Dr. Myhr says. “The noise is because they are ruining health care.”

An agreement to engage in meaningful conversation with the Alberta Medical Association, which represents the province’s doctors, would be, in her eyes, a step that could prevent the imminent changes to local care.

MLA Reid remains positive. “The door is absolutely not closed in terms of reaching a new agreement,” he says. “We know that we need to keep the rapidly accelerating costs of health care under control, but are willing to listen to the AMA if they provide us with a meaningful plan to do that.”

He encourages constituents to continue reaching out to him on this topic at Livingstone.Macleod@assembly.ab.ca

For details about the June 30 drive-by and virtual rally visit the event page.

To learn more about the group, please follow Rally to Rescue Rural Health Care on Facebook.

For more local features and news, visit our home page at www.shootinthebreeze.ca.

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