New Funding Calms Some, But NorthIsle ER Doc Calls For Resignations

Mayors Say $30M is a Win, Doctors Have Serious Doubts

“It’s sort of like buying airplanes but not hiring pilots.”

The battle lines are becoming clearer when it comes to the escalating NorthIsle healthcare crisis.

While health minister Adrian Dix announced a cash infusion for the region last week, the doctor who will soon be Port Hardy’s lone ER physician is saying it doesn’t solve the staffing crisis.

Dix pledged $30 million for capital and operating costs for care centres in Port McNeill, Port Hardy, and Cormorant Island. But the hospitals in the latter two communities will remain closed overnight for the foreseeable future.

But Dr. Alex Nataros will soon be the lone ER doc in the area. He has been vocal about the need to address staffing first and foremost.

“The big picture, from my perspective, is that this [funding] doesn’t do anything to address [immediate] medical staff challenges, right?” Nataros said in an interview. “It’s sort of like buying airplanes but not hiring pilots.”

In contrast, Port Hardy mayor Patricia Corbett-Labatt said she’s thrilled with the new direction. She says the funding aligns with much of the planning at a North Island Health Summit held in November.

“We believe in these three hospitals, we believe that they have a powerful future, we are investing in that future capital and staffing resources and more services,” Dix said at a Feb. 3 news conference at the legislature.

Incentives will hopefully retain long-term staff. For example, time and a half plus meals and mileage for workers that travel to fill shifts. Other incentives include renovating staff accommodations and hiring protection. Other measures include:

  • A new shuttle bus to move staff and patients between hospitals
  • A mobile CT scan diagnostic service
  • Upgrades to the Port McNeill and Port Hardy hospitals (including in the maternity, trauma, and emergency departments and nurses’ stations)
  • Increased support for at-home mental health, substance use, and general health home support services.

“Having some extra funding available for recruitment and retention incentives, it’s huge, absolutely huge,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of work from Port Hardy and Port McNeill, and a few very outspoken and slightly unpopular doctors,” Port McNeill mayor James Furney told the Times-Colonist. “We are just blessed that finally, this squeaky wheel appears to be getting the grease.”

Island Health CEO Kathy MacNeil acknowledged residents’ concerns about ER closures.

“We have heard the community loud and clear,” MacNeil said. “To the local communities and First Nations, I want you to know that this is an incredibly hard step for Island Health to take…we will be positioned to be better able to meet your needs in the future.”

Port McNeill will be the only hospital in the area to provide 24/7 emergency services until more resources are secured, said Dix.

“These are the strongest incentives we can provide,” Dix said at the funding announcement. “It’s an ambitious plan and the right response.”

But tensions have escalated in recent weeks. Critics say the government is doing little to address the most pressing concern: major understaffing. Dr. Nataros has offered a solution, and he’s willing to foot the bill.

“My own experience for the past two weeks is continued harassment by the health authority leadership,” Dr. Nataros told CFAX 1070 on the day of the funding announcement. “As a result of this I’m calling for the resignation of the chief medical officer of Island Health, Dr. Ben Williams.”

Dr. Prean Armogam, a family doc in Port McNeill for 17 years, agrees with Nataros.

“The problem with Ben Williams and the executive medical leadership is that they’re not present,” Armogam told CTV News. “Decisions continue to be made without consulting with people on the ground, people who are frontline, like Alex [Nataros] and myself and the doctors who have been here all these years.”

So the issue is one between the remaining staff here on the ground, and government officials who local docs say are out of touch.

Meanwhile, there’s no end in sight to the ER closures, and Nataros will be the lone ER doctor as of July 1.

Residents and patients are stuck in the middle. They’ll be the real victims in this battle. Let’s just hope there are no casualties.