Fallout continues over allegations about patients from Surrey Memorial Hospital shuttled by taxi to Chilliwack homeless shelters on two occasions last month.
Premier John Horgan described the allegations from Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove sent to Fraser Health as “startling” during his weekly media availability Thursday in the provincial legislature.
“If that is in fact the case, that’s startling for me and I think startling for all British Columbians,” Horgan said.
“Why we brought in a minister of mental health and addictions is so that we didn’t have examples like this, where we find cracks in the system, and those who have potential mental health challenges are left to their own devices,” the premier added.
Mayor Popove’s letter criticized discharge decisions made by Surrey hospital officials which allowed patients to be released and then sent to shelters when they still required some level of care.
One person was incontinent and the other had open sores on their feet, and the mayor said it was a “sad and terrible” situation.
“A homeless shelter is no place for a person with health concerns or special medical needs,” Popove stated in the letter to Fraser Health CEO Dr. Victoria Lee. He is asking for the practice to be changed.
Given that Chilliwack is already struggling with soaring homelessness, resources for the community’s most vulnerable, like shelter beds, should not be used either to “make Chilliwack a destination for homeless people from throughout the region,” Popove argued in his letter.
Chilliwack MLA John Martin also broached the topic during question period Thursday in Victoria, asking Health Minister Adrian Dix to pledge this would never happen again.
The local MLA asked how it could be that “significantly vulnerable” patients like the ones described in the mayor’s letter, with “serious physical and mental health concerns” could be dispatched to a shelter almost 80 kilometres away.
“My mayor and my council, the social services, my non-profits and the great people of Chilliwack do more than their share of heavy lifting on the homeless front, in short, they punch above their weight,” Martin said.
“How can this possibly be an acceptable practice?”
Minister Dix responded that he’d be happy to follow up on those circumstances.
“We have very significantly increased our investment in health care in the last number of years but that doesn’t mean that in every case things are perfect, so I’m happy to meet with the honourable member and discuss the matters he raised.”
MLA Martin stood again to say he appreciated the offer from the minister of health, and they’d take him up on the offer.
“However I would like the minister to go on the record in this house, assuring me and my mayor and my council and everyone in Chilliwack, that this will never, ever happen again,” Martin said.
Minister Dix reminded the MLA that they “don’t discuss individual cases in the House” but they do in cases where permission is granted.
He emphasized the work done by B.C. health care workers, including the people in charge of discharging patients, which he described as “some of the most important work” that they do.
“Often for example, hospitals are over capacity because of inadequate resources in the community, resources we are aggressively building out across both social services and the health system.
“So I am happy to meet with the mayor, happy to meet with the member, and discuss the circumstances and to take it from there,” Dix said.
Fraser Health spokesman Dixon Tam confirmed Friday that Fraser Health CEO Dr. Lee had reached out to Mayor Popove that morning to review his concerns, which are being taken “very seriously,” and are “troubling” for everyone.
“When a patient is medically stable and ready to leave the hospital, we make every effort to find them suitable housing if they don’t have a home to return to,” Tam wrote in an emailed response.
“It is very unusual to transition a patient into a different community unless they ask for this, or if it is the only community with housing that meets their needs at the time.”
Hospital beds are reserved for patients with the “highest medical and mental health” needs, Tam continued.
“A discharge transition from an emergency room to a shelter would only happen when the patient is deemed medically stable, community services (if needed) have been set up and if it has been agreed to by the shelter staff,” Tam said. “Finding suitable housing is a challenge across our region as we continue to care for our homeless population.”
Fraser Health is “committed to continue to work closely with B.C. Housing and our municipal partners” to develop more options, recognizing that “at the same time, we need to be careful not to use hospital beds as an alternative to stable housing.”
—With files from Tom Fletcher