In the third display of what organizers have unofficially dubbed as Rallies for Healthcare, over 200 Nicola Valley residents gathered at Central Park to show their support and call for action on ongoing service disruptions at the Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency department.
In an hour that included drumming, speeches from local elected officials, raised signs, and demands for action, organizers told the Herald that the issue is clearly top-of-mind for residents of Merritt, and beyond. The hospital’s ER has been closed ten times this year, with the diversions increasing in frequency since they became common last year. During the tenth diversion of emergency department services at the Nicola Valley Hospital this year on April 9, roughly 50 residents of the valley gathered on the hospital’s green space to rally against what many see as a lack of provincial action on the issue.
Although the ER hasn’t been closed since, many attendees worry the hospital could close again, and organizers of the rally said they plan to continue until the issue is addressed by Interior Health Authority (IHA) and the provincial health ministry.
“I go through this crowd, and I hear story after story of people who have had an issue with accessing healthcare in our community,” said Georgia Clement, an organizer of the rally.
“We’re just as important as everybody else, every community is important. This shouldn’t be happening anywhere. The fact is that we’re a community of 7000 strong, and about 14,000 area. We have these two mountain pass highways that come into our town, and the people that travel them are at risk, because the closest ER is going to be Kelowna or Kamloops. You can’t even get stabilized here.”
Clement added that the ongoing closures mean Merritt ambulances are spending too much time transporting people to the nearest hospital when the Nicola Valley ER is closed. She and several others have now penned a petition addressed to Interior Health and the provincial ministry of health, both online and in print. The petition calls for action by both parties to investigate and put a stop to the closure.
A number of members of Merritt’s city council, including the mayor, were present at the most recent rally. Mayor Mike Goetz said that at the recent Southern Interior Local Government Association conference in Vernon, a motion calling for an investigation into the ER closures in Merritt and other rural communities, crafted by Councillor Claire Newman and put forward by the city, passed unanimously.
“It was put out at the floor at SILGA, which is all of the southern interior’s mayors, governors, and councillors, and there wasn’t a single vote against it,” Goetz told local media.
“I still meet with the [provincial] ministry as much as possible, but this week I’m getting ahold of the federal health minister, I think we need to go step above and see what rules and regulations are being followed and which ones aren’t, because I’m not getting all the answers I want.”
Goetz said that along with the request for federal assistance, he will be requesting a full tour of the Nicola Valley Hospital with IHA’s executive director due to a number of people raising concerns about maintenance issues at the hospital, such as frozen pipes left unfixed. While he hasn’t verified the claims yet, he hopes to tour the hospital soon.
Goetz has called for an investigation into the source of the closures, and the province’s regulations on the vaccination status of healthcare workers, but the health authority has not announced their intentions to complete such an investigation. Health Minister Adrian Dix has said publicly in recent weeks that the province has no plans to lift the vaccination requirement, adding that the problem was the virus itself causing sick time and missed work, not the vaccine.
Interior Health Authority (IHA) recently told the Herald that staff recruitment and retention efforts for the Nicola Valley Hospital 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.
Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart as also present at the rally, adding that opposition has been rising in the legislature to speak on rural healthcare issues such as the one in Merritt, and calling the situation ‘appalling.’
“Whoever thought when we were at the opening of the new ER that we would find ourselves here,” said Tegart to the crowd. “In how many years? This is appalling, what IH is doing, and it needs an overall plan. That’s what we asked the minister, we asked him, ‘where’s the plan?’ Where’s the staffing plan? Where’s the HR plan? Where’s the commitment to keep the services where they need to be?”
Organizers of the rally added that they look to apply continual pressure to the provincial government to take action, and will likely plan another rally to raise awareness of the issue. To view the online petition from organizers, visit: https://chng.it/DwxkZP6bDP.