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Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers

Health lodge ‘watered down’ to hotels: Cathers

The construction of a new health lodge for Whitehorse doesn’t appear to be on the immediate horizon for the territory.

By Whitehorse Star on March 27, 2024

The construction of a new health lodge for Whitehorse doesn’t appear to be on the immediate horizon for the territory.

During Monday’s question period in the legislature, Yukon Party MLA Geraldine Van Bibber recalled that a year ago, the legislature unanimously passed an NDP motion calling for the creation of a health lodge in Whitehorse for rural residents attending medical appointments in the capital.

“However, we do not see this project either in the budget or in the five-year capital plan,” Van Bibber told the House.

“Can the minister tell us how much money is budgeted this year to advance this project?”

Tracy-Anne McPhee, the minister of Health and Social Services, said she was “pleased to rise to be able to speak about the importance of a health authority.

“The transformation of the Yukon’s health system, including the health infrastructure that can and may be necessary going forward, is contemplated in the legislation that is before this House as the first step in constructing a health authority as recommended by Putting People First, as recommended by Yukoners who spoke about the deficiencies in the health system and also spoke about the support for many of the areas of the health system that are positive. But we all know that change is necessary.”

Van Bibber noted that when the health lodge motion was debated last spring, “the government insisted that they had been working on this file since the comprehensive health review was completed in 2019; however, since then, we have not seen any sign of progress.

“When can Yukoners expect a health lodge for rural residents to be opened?” Van Bibber asked.

McPhee called it “critically important that Yukoners understand our focus on supporting medical travel, the changes that occurred as a result of Putting People First, and the doubling of the medical travel subsidy for Yukoners who find it necessary to travel.

“On occasion, individuals have to travel from communities into Whitehorse for services and/or from the Yukon Territory to communities outside the territory — perhaps to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, etcetera. Recommendation 2.6 in the Putting People First report is to create residences as an accommodation option for medical travellers who require that.”

While the government conducts longer term work related to establishing those residences in Whitehorse and other locations, McPhee added, “We are exploring alternatives and short-term resolutions, including arranging for a particular location for individuals to be able to stay for the short-term for services that they need.”

Van Bibber pointed out that in 2023, during debate on the health lodge motion, Premier Ranj Pillai “said they would not start developing an operating model for this Whitehorse health lodge on the floor of the legislature but that they would start work to develop a model very soon.

“Since it has been a year now, can the government update us on what work has been done to develop the operating model for this Whitehorse health lodge for rural Yukoners?”

McPhee replied that in August 2023, the government surveyed Yukoners who had travelled in the previous 18 months for medical services to inquire about their accommodations.

Officials received more than 1,800 responses to the survey.

Results indicated that 27 per cent of those who travelled to Whitehorse stayed with friends or family. In Vancouver, 12 percent stayed with friends or family.

Last fall, the government completed a request for information to explore the propects of contracting hotels in Whitehorse and Vancouver for Yukon travellers who need medical services.

“The results from the survey and the requests for information will inform how to better support Yukoners who travel for medical services,” McPhee said.

‘I am not sure if the individual member across the way is suggesting that we build a new location for a medical residence. Some jurisdictions have gone that route.

“We are more critically focused on making sure that individuals have places to stay in a timely fashion in a way that does not necessarily require a full build; although, in future, we are reviewing, of course, the health infrastructure.”

Later, speaking to reporters, the minister said of the health lodge concept, “We’re interested in something that’s quicker than that, to be quite frank with you.

“The health care residents’ lodge is, ideally, a great idea.

“Do we have the capacity either in the five-year capital plan or perhaps even with a partner? More importantly, to get rooms available for people? No, we need to do that more quickly than that.”

The survey helped officials gain more information about that, McPhee said.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for opportunities to have blocks of hotel rooms available.”

The Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre has an apartment that’s available, she pointed out.

“We are looking to see in future buildings that are built here whether or not some rooms or apartments can be put aside for individuals.

“Exploring sort of all the options to see if and how we can support individuals who have to travel for medical services so they’re not paying and that would be an expense for government and the Yukon taxpayers,” she said.

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers had more questions for McPhee on Tuesday, saying the original health lodge concept has been “watered down.

“Can the minister explain if the Liberals’ commitment to build a health lodge for rural Yukoners has now been replaced with booking hotel rooms?” he asked her.

The minister noted the government has doubled the medical travel subsidy to $166 per day for overnight outpatient expenses and $84 a day for same-day travel and for escorts.

The government’s priority, she said, “is about providing service for Yukoners. Unfortunately, our members across the way don’t really care about that; what they care about is making political points, and I care about making sure that individuals are supported when they are having to travel for their medical needs.”

Cathers then referenced the Liberals’ 2021 election campaign platform.

“That document said — quote: ‘Creating a health lodge in Whitehorse….’

“Can the minister confirm that this Liberal platform commitment that she and her colleagues promised to Yukoners has now been punted down the road to the longer term, and that she actually has no intent of living up to their promise to rural Yukoners during this mandate?” Cathers asked.

At that point, Premier Ranj Pillai intervened, suggesting McPhee has achieved far more as a minister than Cathers did in office. He cited “multiple walk-in clinics” and the managed alcohol program.

“We would know who has gotten stuff done and who didn’t get anything done,” Pillai said.

“Why do you not support a partnership with the private sector?” he asked Cathers.

“Why do you not support a partnership with an NGO? And why is the only solution for government to build a new building?”

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