Amid mounting public pressure over conditions in the province’s most populous health region, the Fraser Health board of directors held a virtual public meeting on Tuesday.
Absent from the agenda was a discussion of well-publicized issues at Surrey Memorial Hospital, with directors focusing on efforts to address the toxic drug crisis.
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A question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting consisted of queries from the public submitted and pre-screened in advance. None of the questions selected dealt with what many doctors in the region have called a “crisis” amid staffing and crowding concerns.
In an interview, Board Chair Jim Sinclair said the health authority had switched to virtual meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and felt it generally got a better turnout from the public to the online meetings than to those held in person.
“Are they more willing to tune in from their home and listen to a board meeting for an hour than they are to come out to a community meeting and listen to us for an hour there and engage with us there?” he said.
“I personally would prefer as you know to be sitting in a room full of 100 people and having them quizzing us about what we’re doing.”
Health authorities are required by law to hold meetings in full public view, but critics say under the virtual model most decisions are now being made behind closed doors.
Sinclair said many of those decisions relate to real estate, finances or personnel decisions and as such must be kept confidential.
But he pointed to a spate of recent media interviews by health authority CEO Victoria Lee to argue its decision-making was open to the public.
“I think there was quite a bit of transparency about what we are doing,” he said.
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The province’s Official Opposition disputed that characteristic, with its health critic calling on Fraser Health to ditch the virtual-first model.
“At a time when British Columbians feel pretty desperate about the HC situation in British Columbia, transparency matters more than ever,” BC United Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond told Global News.
“People need to have the opportunity to engage, to understand why decisions are being made, and they have a right when it’s in the public interest to be a part of those discussions or at least to be aware of the conversations that take place.”
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With numerous health-care workers expressing significant concerns about conditions, Bond said leadership in the health region should be opening the doors wider to hear feedback rather than limiting it.
“How can you improve a system if you are unwilling to listen to the people who have to use the services in the health-care system?” she said.
“It’s uncomfortable, it’s difficult, but it’s essential.”
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Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C.’s health authority boards have all strived to maintain a public-facing portion of every meeting, but added that such meetings aren’t the only place where there is accountability.
The public can always submit questions and comments in writing, and board members as individuals are accessible, he said.
Despite that, he acknowledged that the current form was less accessible than before COVID-19 when boards would travel from community to community and held what he described as “much more engaged” meetings, often with a focus on local issues.
“Now that we’re in this period where we’re still in pandemic but there’s an opportunity to have more in person meetings, the boards are going to be more encouraged to get out into different communities,” Dix said.
While discussions about the issues plaguing Surrey Memorial Hospital were essentially absent from Tuesday morning’s public-facing meeting, the board did meet in-camera Tuesday afternoon where some of the topics were addressed.
None of that information, however, was made public.
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