Residents of Elk Point are often haunted with the whispers of the hospital closing, it’s not a new threat in the community; rather one the town has been fighting for two decades. The threat emerged in the late 90’s but thanks to collaborative effort of community members and government officials the hospital was saved. Nearly twenty years later, and the same issues are popping up. Is the hospital used enough to remain open? And at what point does the cost of maintaining the infrastructure out-weigh the benefit of the keeping the hospital open?
The hospital employs 117 staff and two doctors. The doctors each have their own busy practices in the community. The practices are busy enough, that one business owner, Nigel LaFrance, saw enough of a need for a third doctor to take a proactive approach to expand his business, Guardian Drugs. He moved his business across town to a bigger location and renovated to include an area for a clinic. It’s not a singular effort by the business owner, many others in the community have hope of another doctor setting up a practice, though there has been no confirmation through the hospital, the town, or Alberta Health Services (AHS) that this will happen.
Despite the busy practices and want for another physician in town, there’s constant rumblings in the community that AHS might be thinking closure, rather than expansion. The hospital was featured in a December 2nd, 2014 article in the Edmonton Journal as being one of nine rural hospitals that could be at risk of closure, which brought back memories of the late 90’s battle to keep the hospital open for many residents.
If closure were to happen, LaFrance says there’s at least two businesses in town that would be forced to close almost immediately. “If we don’t have the hospital, we won’t have any doctors, and if we don’t have any doctors… You don’t need a pharmacy,” LaFrance puts it simply, his business and another pharmacy in town are on the line, but it’s a trickle effect through the whole community. “As a general business owner, we need people in town. If we don’t have a hospital, no one’s going to want to live in Elk Point.”
Along with Guardian Drugs, LaFrance is a real estate agent, “real estate wise, it’s not going to be good. [The hospital] is the life blood, if you don’t have that, your chances of survival are slim-to-none. Any community without a hospital is not going to have any growth.”
LaFrance holds out hope that the clinic at Guardian Drugs won’t remain vacant for too long, “we thought maybe a nurse practitioner could go in there. We definitely need something health related.”
Over the years, many services that were once offered in Elk Point have been removed from the hospital and moved to neighbouring communities; such as physiotherapy. Patients must now drive to St. Paul or Bonnyville to receive treatment. The drive is 25-35 minutes one-way in good driving conditions, add winter conditions and bodies that are in need of physiotherapy and you have a bad combination for any patient. This is not only a strain on the patient, but on the neighbouring communities, adding patients from Elk Point, and the communities which formerly used the Elk Point hospital, to the patient lists at these other communities only adds to the already long wait times and staffing issues.
Mayor of Elk Point Parrish Tung says the staffing is adequate at the Elk Point hospital, it’s the support from the government and AHS that may be lacking. “The staffing apparently is satisfactory,” the Mayor explains that the hospital is busier than what was displayed in a pre-provincial election report released by The Edmonton Journal, “I would say the usage for the beds is at 75 to 80 percent.” Mayor Tung recalls just recently the hospital was fully occupied, “just three weeks ago I was told all the beds were full, by a patient. That patient ended up being an out-patient for a while before being discharged,” rather than admitted because there wasn’t enough beds.
There is a leak in the roof at the hospital, which is causing a lot of concern, “we understand there’s an issue with the leaking roof, we also understand finances are tight within the province,” says Mayor Tung, “however, we all know what a leaking roof can do. It is our wish that our government, once the provincial budget is approved, we’ll have money to treat the leaking roof as a priority and get it fixed.”
There unfolds a bigger issue, the NDP government has yet to formulate a budget. This is leaving a lot of elements of government at a stand-still, including AHS. Waiting on a budget and governmental bureaucracy may be detrimental to the hospital’s infrastructure. “The roof started leaking around springtime, however, that’s when the budget was not approved,” says Mayor Tung of the proposed PC government budget; which was ultimately thrown-out post-election with the NDP taking majority. “We only hope the provincial government will treat this as a priority when the budget is passed.”
The newly elected MLA for the region, Dave Hanson, visited the hospital in May. The visit was well-received, believes Mayor Tung, “Mr. Hanson was quite surprised at how big the hospital is and he was quite impressed with the services.” The Mayor believes the next step for Elk Point is to let the MLA know of the roof situation, since the leak wasn’t an issue during his visit. “It’s an issue now that the roof hasn’t been addressed in such a long time, we need to get into action,” the Mayor assures he’ll be getting in contact with Mr. Hanson before the budget is handed down. “Hopefully, he can notify the proper department and take a serious look at the situation.”
The Mayor believes concerned citizens can do a lot to help get this issue on the forefront of the provinces mind, “express your concerns to your MLA. Phone him or email him, let him know.” Grabbing the provinces attention and displaying how vital the hospital is to the community and the surrounding region is the most important element to keeping the hospital open and in good condition.
The Honourable Dave Hanson – MLA Two Hills-St. Paul – Lac La Biche 877-674-6999 [email protected]
The Honourable Sarah Hoffman – Alberta Minister of Health 780 427-3665 [email protected]
*in an earlier version it stated Nigel LaFrance owned rental properties, that statement has been retracted.