Merritt’s Mayor Neil Menard calls them like he sees them — and he’s been watching as his city has lost two doctors and a nurse practitioner over the last year, while bureaucratic delays bogged down any efforts to attract new physicians to Merritt.

Menard took an opportunity at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board meeting on Jan. 19 to share his thoughts on Merritt’s doctor shortage with B.C.’s Health Minister Terry Lake.

Merritt's Mayor Neil Menard

Merritt’s Mayor Neil Menard

“I spoke on behalf of the city… I said, another one of our concerns is our doctor situation. We have a doctor here, bought a house here, been here nine months, just got out of school and ready to go to work — but there’s too much red tape,” explained Menard. “I said, that’s a lot of crap and we need to get that done.”

Lake was in attendance at the TNRD meeting to give board members an update on the fentanyl/opioid crisis when Menard confronted him regarding the doctor shortage.

Part of Menard’s frustration with the “red tape” slowing down the acquisition of new physicians in the city comes from the fact that the city doesn’t know where the delays are coming from.

“He’s ready to go — they just gotta get the okay. We don’t know where the problem is. Is it the [College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia]? Is it Interior Health?” wondered Menard. “We’re digging into that to try and find out.”

At the start of 2016, Merritt counted seven working physicians in the city. That number was cut to five, following the departure of both Dr. Urbanus Bester and Dr. Andries Smit midway through the spring.

The sudden departures of two of the town’s doctors left more than 2,000 people in Merritt without a family doctor — something that the Interior Health Authority and the physicians in Merritt have been working to correct ever since.

But as Menard suggested, red tape seems to have limited Merritt’s ability to attract working doctors in recent history.

In 2015, Merritt-born doctor Steve Lali was in the process of moving his family back to his hometown to establish a practice — but ran into issues with Canadian immigration.

Though Lali was born in Merritt, he completed his training in Poland and his residency in Miami. But it was Lali’s U.S.-born wife whose immigration to Canada was called into question.

The delay forced Lali to evaluate his job offers — and chose to relocate his family to Washington and remain in the United States, rather than risk more delays in sorting out the immigration issues.

At the time in 2015, Lali told the Herald it had been his intention to one day move back to Merritt. But taking a job as a physician in the U.S. would complicate that plan as he was likely to buy into whichever practice he joined.

“Once you buy-in, get established — children come along — you don’t know what your future entails, but it was always my full intention to move back to Merritt,” Lali said. “But it depends now.”

And while the pressure is on in Merritt to recruit another doctor, travelling 50 kilometres up Highway 5A to Logan Lake paints a different picture of public health.

In 2016, the municipality with a population of just over 2,000 people managed to recruit two doctors, through the province’s practice-ready assessment (PRA) program. The PRA program matches internationally-trained physicians with doctors in B.C., who spend three months with the prospective hire. During that three month period, the B.C. doctor will evaluate the new recruit. Should the international physician pass the assessment, they will be transferred to a rural community in need of doctors, with a contract to stick around for a minimum of three years.

Dr. Safi Saeed opened his practice in Logan Lake on March 1, and his wife, Dr. Amena Wahbi, began practicing in the community later in the year.

But the husband and wife combination are still looking to fill their schedules with more visits from locals. Right now, about half their patients come from either Kamloops or Merritt, the Saeed family told the CBC.

While Menard had strong words for Lake at the TNRD meeting on Jan. 19, he said the health minister was receptive and open to working together with the City of Merritt.

“Minister Lake has said ‘Get me the information and I will put some pressure on too,'” said Menard.

The IHA declined to comment for this story, but did a spokesperson did confirm that the health authority is working with a doctor slated to come to Merritt in the near future.