Bellingham’s cancer program cost BC $16 million last year

According to figures provided to CBC News by BC Cancer, the province spent $16 million last year on a program to send cancer patients to Bellingham, Washington, for radiation therapy.

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

The program has been announced last may as part of the provincial government’s ongoing efforts to reduce wait times for radiation therapy for cancer patients in British Columbia

There is some evidence that waiting times for radiation therapy are improving, with BC Cancer reporting that 80 per cent of cancer patients are receiving radiation within the clinical benchmark of four weeks, up from 75 per cent in December. However, BC remains one of the worst performing provinces when it comes to meeting the 28-day benchmark, well below the national average of 94 per cent.

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About 600 people with breast or prostate cancer have undergone radiation therapy in Bellingham, Washington, since the program was announced last May. The numbers were released Thursday as part of the county’s one-year update to its 10-year cancer plan. As Katie DeRosa reports, the county has shrunk its waiting list for radiation therapy, but critics say relying on the U.S. is an indictment of the cancer system.

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

That means if $13.1 million was spent on the treatment, it would cost about $16,000 to treat each patient in Bellingham.

According to the Ministry of Health, a treatment involving five rounds of radiotherapy in British Columbia costs $3,854.

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 therapy in Bellingham over four weeks in February.

The county said last year it expected to treat 2,400 cancer patients a year 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 has spent years taking the government to court over the provision of private health care in British Columbia, said it is a double standard for the province to direct millions of dollars to private clinics in the U.S. while opposing similar private options in Canada.

“This is not only hypocritical, but it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” said Day, owner of the Cambie Surgery Centre, which is private. “That funding comes from taxpayers and should stay in Canada instead of 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 has been at the center of a 14-year legal battle over private health care in British Columbia. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In 2009, Day filed a lawsuit challenging the British Columbia government’s ban on private insurance for medically necessary care already covered by the public health system.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled No appeal was filed against Day, ending the 14-year legal battle.

“They’ve spent tens of millions of dollars trying to block private options in Canada and yet they’re supporting private options in the states,” Day said. “It doesn’t make any 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 BC Cancer hires more oncologists and radiologists as part of the 10-year plan for cancer.

“In the meantime, we didn’t want people who were dealing with cancer to pay the price,” he said.

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks thoughtful at a news conference. He is a middle-aged white man dressed in a navy suit, navy tie and white shirt. He has brown hair and wears black-rimmed glasses.
British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix, pictured on June 18, 2024. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Devon Mitchell, a representative of Canadian Physicians for Medicare in British Columbia, said, “It is a tragedy that in a country as wealthy as ours, we cannot provide care to patients in our own country.”

However, he said the system Day advocated for in the lawsuit would lead to a two-tiered medical system, where those who can pay get priority and don’t have to wait in line.

In contrast, the government is footing the bill for faster radiation treatment in Bellingham, said Mitchell, an emergency medicine resident who works at Vancouver General Hospital.

Opposition wants more use of private clinics

BC United launched its health care platform last month, which leader Kevin Falcon said would increase reliance on private clinics to provide publicly funded health care.

Dr. Claudine Storness-Bliss, a physician at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the party’s candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale, said the NDP’s “ideology” — one she said views private health care as something to be fought rather than embraced — has failed patients.

“They’re putting ideologies before patients,” she said. “They’re already using private clinics in both British Columbia and Washington State. They’re just not using them to their full potential.”

A woman with curly blonde hair and a white dress poses for a photo in front of a glass building.
Dr. Claudine Storness-Bliss, OB/GYN at Surrey Memorial Hospital and BC United candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

According to Storness-Bliss, BC United’s plan does not advocate the privatization of health care.

“We are advocating for public money to be used to pay for care in private facilities while patients wait,” she said. “While I believe in a public health care system … in the meantime we have to put out the fire and it is unacceptable to leave patients like this.”

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