Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz is calling for an investigation into the cause of a number of diversions at the Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency room (ER). 

Emergency department closures have plagued B.C. hospitals for a number of years, with staffing shortages forcing rural ERs, such as the one in Merritt, to shut their doors for periods usually spanning about 12 hours. Recently, Merritt’s ER was closed twice within the span of one week, and has closed three times so far in the month of February. With the ER having been closed a total of six times since December 20 of last year, Goetz said it’s time for some answers.

“IHA [Interior Health] needs to get involved and find out –that’s why I’m calling for an investigation–let’s find out what the real root of the problem is, and then let’s address that problem,” Goetz told the Herald.

“We can work together with them to help them get there, and we just all really need to know what the problem is because a lot of the time, we don’t get shared the information of what’s going on and why it’s closing. When the first closure came out, we were told that it was a nurse shortage, and then about 20 minutes later, we were told it was a doctor shortage.”

The Mayor noted that clear information is a missing piece in the puzzle, with clarity needed on the cause of the ER closures and possible solutions to the ongoing issue. Goetz said he is in regular contact with Interior Health and Ministry of Health officials regarding the closures, and has a meeting scheduled for February 24 with IHA President and CEO, Susan Brown, to discuss the cause and impacts of a lack of ER access in rural communities like Merritt. He also recently called upon the provincial government to drop its mandate that requires healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Goetz announced last month that he would chair the BC Rural Health Alliance, an advocacy group made up of elected municipal leaders from Vancouver Island, the Kootenays, and the Southern Interior, all regions that have suffered from ER closures and other healthcare issues. He noted that with Merritt’s location at the intersection of a number of major highways, and its population of seniors and blue collar workers, an ER that runs 24/7 is non-negotiable.

“We’re at the point where something has to be done, whether you want to deal with it or not, something has to be done,” said Goetz.

Kamloops–North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar recently stood during question period in BC’s Legislature to grill Minister of Health Adrian Dix about several healthcare issues, including the ER closures in Merritt. He said that his office was alerted of a situation that occurred during one of the Nicola Valley Hospital ER’s recent closures where a senior with pneumonia and her 80 year old husband were forced to drive to Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital on treacherous roads for medical attention.

Minister Dix responded by identifying the treacherous road conditions as a possible reason for the physician-shortage related closure, adding that the closure was a patient safety measure due to the lack of staffing. Dix also argued that more medical staff are serving rural B.C. communities now than ever before, citing an increase of 38,000 healthcare workers since his appointment as Minister of Health in 2017.

Mayor Goetz believes the answer for Merritt lies in working with both the Ministry and Interior Health.

“It’s a frustrating situation, but I feel that if I work with IHA, who can then work with the Ministry, we can come to some sort of solution to this,” said Goetz.

Interior Health recently told the Herald in an interview that staff recruitment and retention efforts are ongoing, with the closures being a last resort measure to address staffing shortages caused by the overall vacancies, short-notice sick calls, and vacation time. 

As far as Goetz’s request for an investigation, it remains to be seen if the health authority will accept.