By Tyler Olsen and Jeff Nagel
Fraser Health will close hospital beds at Abbotsford Regional Hospital and other facilities, including Mission, this spring even as it continues to struggle to overcome long-standing concerns about emergency room congestion and the length of patients’ stays.
And while the bed closures were revealed at the same time as plans to open up hundreds of new residential care beds, none of those new beds will be located east of Surrey, according to the health authority.
Fraser Health is closing a total of 80 in-patient beds at 10 of its 12 hospitals, as it aims to shift aging patients out of hospitals and back into local communities.
The strategy has been years in the works and is culminating now as 400 residential complex care beds are set to come on stream in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Surrey and White Rock at a cost of $34.5 million.
Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma said Abbotsford has less demand for residential care beds than those cities.
“This will happen over the next six months,” Juma said. “As those residential care beds come available, we’ll be able to move people into them and slowly the reductions will happen.”
Only hospitals in Delta and the Fraser Canyon won’t see the elimination of beds.
The reductions represent less than three per cent of Fraser’s 3,000 total hospital acute care beds.
Fraser officials hope the shift into the community will ultimately mean better, more appropriate care for those patients, as well as fewer people clogging hospital beds and less ER congestion. The authority also plans to increase home support programs.
“The long-term goal is that as we take better care of people in the community, they don’t have to come into the hospital,” Juma said.
Juma maintained the region will see a net increase in combined residential and acute care beds and a net increase in jobs as more support staff are being deployed for community care.
She also pointed to 10 new hospice beds that will be opened this spring.
Fraser has long pursued a “home is best” long-range strategy to decongest hospitals but that took on renewed urgency in 2013, when Health Minister Terry Lake ordered a review after the health region repeatedly failed to stay within its budget.
“Care in the community is certainly less expensive than hospital care,” Juma acknowledged. “The long-term benefit is we will see those gains in the future.”
B.C. Nurses’ Union president Gayle Duteil opposes the plan to close beds, saying hospitals are already heavily congested before the planned shift in resources.
“Last week we saw a record high number of patients waiting for beds in wards,” Duteil said. “Some patients were waiting in the ER for upwards of four hours just to be triaged. That is not safe patient care.”
She questioned whether enough nurses are working in community care to handle the new patients.
Juma agreed hospital emergency departments are busy right now, partly because of higher winter volumes.
“We are going to ensure the support in the community is there before we start reducing those bed numbers.”
Abbotsford Regional’s latest quarterly health care report card showed that it has made little headway in reducing hospital congestion, with just one in three patients admitted to hospital within 10 hours.
The target is 55 per cent, but ARH hasn’t made any progress since the number was first reported in September 2014. It has now been four years since Fraser Health and the Ministry of Health established a panel to identify solutions to long-standing congestion problems in Surrey and New Westminster.