Bellingham cancer program has cost B.C. $16M over past year

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The province has spent $16 million on a program to send cancer patients to Bellingham, Wash., for radiation therapy over the past year, according to B.C. Cancer figures provided to CBC News.  

Of that, $13.1 million went to two private clinics: the Peace Health St. Joseph Medical Centre and the North Cascade Cancer Centre. Another $3 million was spent on travel costs, including meals and accommodation for each patient as well as a support person.

The program was announced last May as part of the provincial government’s ongoing effort to reduce radiation therapy wait times for cancer patients in B.C.

There are indications the wait for radiation therapy is improving, with B.C. Cancer reporting that 80 per cent of cancer patients are receiving radiation within the four-week clinical benchmark, up from 75 per cent in December. However, B.C. remains one of the worst performing provinces when it comes to meeting a 28-day benchmark and sits well below the national average of 94 per cent. 

WATCH |  Critics say relying on U.S. cancer care is an indictment of B.C.’s system

Around 600 people with breast cancer or prostate cancer have received radiation therapy in Bellingham, Wash., since the program was announced last May. The figures were released Thursday as part of the province’s one-year update into its 10-year cancer plan. As Katie DeRosa reports, while the province has reduced the waitlist size for radiation therapy, critics say relying on the U.S. is an indictment of the cancer system.

Data from B.C. Cancer provided to CBC News shows 801 patients completed radiation therapy in Bellingham between June 2023 and June of this year. 

That would mean, if $13.1 million has been spent on treatment, it would cost about $16,000 to treat each patient in Bellingham.

In B.C., it costs $3,854 for five rounds of radiation therapy, according to the Ministry of Health.

However, not all cancer patients receive five rounds of radiation therapy. Richard Mearow, an elder from the Fort Nelson First Nation. received 20 rounds of radiation in Bellingham over four weeks in February.

The province said last year it anticipated that 2,400 cancer patients a year could be treated in Bellingham at a cost of $34 million a year. The program is expected to last two years.

Local private clinics

Vancouver physician Dr. Brian Day, who spent years fighting the government in court over the delivery of private health care in B.C., said it’s a double standard that the province is sending millions of dollars to private U.S. clinics while opposing similar private options in Canada.

“This is not only hypocritical but it’s an example of wasting taxpayer dollars,” said Day, who owns the Cambie Surgery Centre, which is private. “That funding belongs to the taxpayers and should stay in Canada rather than subsidizing care in the United States.”

A woman walks into a building called the Cambie Surgery Centre
Dr. Brian Day owns the Cambie Surgery Centre which was at the centre of a 14-year legal battle over private health care in B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Day launched a legal challenge in 2009 against the B.C. government’s ban on the purchase of private insurance for medically necessary services already covered by the public health system.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it would not hear an appeal from Day, ending the 14-year legal battle.

“They spent tens of millions of dollars opposing private options in Canada and yet are supporting private options in the states,” Day said. “It makes no sense.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix has dismissed that criticism. 

He said the Bellingham program is a temporary measure to get wait times under control while the province builds four new cancer centres in Burnaby, Surrey, Kamloops and Nanaimo, and while B.C. Cancer hires more oncologists and radiation technologists as part of the 10-year cancer plan

“In the meantime we didn’t want people dealing with cancer now paying the price,” he said. 

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix looks pensive at a press conference. He is a middle-aged white man wearing a navy blue suit, navy blue tie and white dress shirt. He has brown hair and wears balck-framed glasses.
B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix is pictured on June 18, 2024. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Devon Mitchell, a B.C. representative for the Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said “it’s a tragedy that in a country as wealthy as ours we’re not able to provide care to patients in our own country.”

However, he said the system Day argued for in the court case would create a two-tier medical system that privileges those who can pay to skip the queue.  

In contrast, the government is footing the bill for speedier radiation treatment in Bellingham, said Mitchell, a resident doctor in emergency medicine who works out of Vancouver General Hospital. 

Opposition plans to increase use of private clinics

B.C. United last month released its health care platform, which leader Kevin Falcon says would increase the reliance on private clinics to deliver publicly-funded health care. 

Dr. Claudine Storness-Bliss, a doctor at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the party’s candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale, said the NDP’s “ideology” – one she says treats private health care as something to be fought instead of embraced – has left patients behind. 

“They are putting ideologies ahead of patients,” she said. “They are already using private clinics both in B.C. and in Washington State. They’re just not using it to its full capacity.”

A woman with curled blonde hair wearing a white dress poses for a photo in front of a glass building.
Dr. Claudine Storness-Bliss, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Surrey Memorial Hospital and B.C. United candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Storness-Bliss said the B.C. United plan does not advocate for the privatization of health care.

“We’re advocating to use government money to pay for care in private facilities while patients are waiting,” she said. “As much as I believe in a public health care system … in the meantime, we have to put out the fire and it’s unacceptable to leave patients like that.”

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