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'On the cusp of collapse': B.C. mayor pushing for community to be included in healthcare loan forgiveness program

Oliver mayor Mayor Martin Johansen spent four months reaching out to the province to find out why the town wasn’t on the list.
“Are things getting better? No, I think we're still on the cusp of collapse,” said Mayor Martin Johansen.

The mayor of Oliver is trying to figure out why the town has been left off the province's loan forgiveness program for healthcare workers, while he says their troubling healthcare situation is still ‘on the cusp of collapse.'

Mayor Martin Johansen said he had a frontline healthcare worker reach out to him about the program, and became aware that the town wasn’t on the list.

B.C.’s loan forgiveness program is a student aid initiative for eligible occupations such as nurses, physicians, midwives and occupational therapists, to receive education loan help in return for moving to eligible underserved communities.

Those who qualify will have their outstanding B.C. portion of their student loan debt forgiven at a rate of 20 per cent per year for up to five years, with a minimum working hour requirement.

But Oliver isn't on the list of acknowledged "underserved" communities.

“Right now, with the shortage of healthcare professionals and the limited amount of people graduating, the incentives are to go elsewhere. So now we've got sort of competition built up against the underserved communities and the communities that are still underserved, but maybe not as much as they are,” Johansen said.

“This is a big deal for us and we need to get ourselves back on that list. There is currently a program where there's a $10,000 signing bonus for a nurse to come here. But you're still paying tax on that, and it doesn't affect your student loans. And if you're here getting that kind of bonus, or you can go somewhere and work toward loan forgiveness for your entire student loan, what are you going to do?”

Stuck in a state of health care crisis, the South Okanagan has a lengthy unattached patient list and its local hospital, the South Okanagan General Hospital, sees temporary hour cuts and closures due to limited physician availability.

“Are things getting better? No, I think we're still on the cusp of collapse,” Johansen said.

“There's a lot of people working hard and behind the scenes on recruitment and retention, trying to fill shifts and this is just another roadblock. It's hindering their ability to do their job and when they don't do their job, everybody suffers because our healthcare system isn't providing the services that we want and expect it to do.”

Another frustration for Johansen was spending four months reaching out to the province to find out why the town wasn’t on the list.

In charge of the program is the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills, and Minister Selina Robinson.

“The next step for me is to try and get a conversation with her to explain to her and let her know how challenging this is for our ER department,” Johansen said.

The Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills said in a statement to Castanet that working in consultation with the Ministry of Health, StudentAid BC uses the Rural Practice Subsidiary Agreement list of communities to define eligible underserved communities.

“These are communities in B.C. where access to physician services is limited and includes a rating system that assigns medical isolation points to B.C. communities. Isolation points are assigned to a community based on several factors including community size and distance from major medical communities.”

The ministry said that neither Osoyoos nor Oliver have been on the list since 2015. Prior to 2015, the agreement list was not in use and at that time Oliver and Osoyoos were identified as eligible communities.

In 2015, both towns were removed from the list when the process for identifying eligible communities was implemented.

Community eligibility is determined by evaluating its level of isolation. According to the ministry, the criteria includes:

  • Number of designated specialties within 70 km
  • Number of general practitioners within 35 km
  • Community size
  • Distance from major medical community
  • Degree of latitude
  • Specialist Centre

While Johansen said feedback from the province is that implementing this program it isn’t creating competition between towns, speaking with front-line workers the opposite is true.

“When you talk to the people in front lines, like I said, people working in recruitment, working in retention, trying to fill shifts, this is a problem.”

Johansen will be heading down to Vancouver in early April to a housing summit that the Union of British Columbia Municipalities is putting on, and he is planning to connect with Robinson to find out what options there are heading forward.