Thursday, July 12, 2007

Government policy threatens to kick sick kids off the bus

Regardless of their political stripe, most people who have had dealings with Shuswap MLA George Abbott has come away feeling they were dealing with a very sensible low key person who uses humour as a way to make people feel at ease.

Abbott’s self-deprecating sense of humour and low-key approach has earned him the admiration and respect of both cabinet colleagues and his constituents. A feat that is all the more amazing when you consider that for the past two years he has served as BC’s Minister of Health.

There are a few health related charitable organizations that over the years have done very good work, in a low-key way and have also utilized humour to help make both donors and patients feel at ease.

This approach has some people, including myself, talking about George Abbott being a potential future successor to Gordon Campbell as Premier of BC. However there is one organization that has utilized a similar approach that is now languishing due to a lack of profile and awareness by both the public and the politicians over the tremendously important work they do.

I am talking about the Gizeh Shriners of British Columbia & Yukon. You may know them as the folks in the funny fez hats, or the guys who dress as clowns and ride tricycles in parades. What you don’t know is that for nearly 85 years, Shriners Hospitals for Children have provided some of the best medical care in the world, totally free of charge, to more than 835,000 children with orthopaedic conditions, burn injuries of all degrees, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate.

However, for children requiring specialized treatment at medical facilities in the United States or in Vancouver, just getting to the hospitals is often a major challenge. Parents especially single mothers often do not have the money to transport themselves and/or their sick child.

In order to help deal with this growing problem here in BC; the Shriners in 2001 purchased their first Highway Motor Coach. The coach was modified to comfortably transport physically challenged children and their parents to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Oregon, for treatment.

Due to both the success and increasing need for this service today the Shrine Care Cruiser program, which is one of a kind in North America, has grown to five modern highway coaches that are travel throughout the province of British Columbia.

Most amazing of all is that any BC child and their parents (or care givers), who are receiving treatment at any Shriners Hospitals for Children, BC Children’s’ Hospital, BC Women's Hospital and Sunny Hill Hospital are provided with this transportation free of charge.
This program has helped alleviate the suffering of thousands of BC children and their parents, particularly those that are living in more remote regions of their province. In 2005 alone 3,384 children and parents from BC were transported by the Shriners to various hospitals for treatment.

But these buses in driving the length and breadth of BC need to be replaced on a regular basis. It was for that reason that the Gizeh Shriners of BC & Yukon applied last year for a capital grant to assist them in purchasing new replacement buses.

This is of course where the story takes an unhappy turn. Although the BC government provides $4 million per year in funding to Northern Health to assist them in transporting patients to hospital, the provincial government has refused to give one penny to assist with the Shriners’ Care Cruiser Program. This despite the fact that Northern Health charges a fee to the people it transports while the Shriners’ Care Cruiser program does not.

As any health care professional will tell you, the medical treatment and transportation requirements for grievously sick children is often quite different than that for adults. Children in traumatic times like this need to have those they know as the parents that love and protect them close at hand.

They do not want to be alone with strangers and the mixing of children with adult patients can be extremely psychologically traumatic. Yet because the Shriners’ Care Cruiser Program restricts their service to children only, it is under current BC government policy ineligible for funding assistance.

As much as people in the media love to harp about political interference, we do on many occasions need our elected officials to intervene in these sorts of situations where government regulations inadvertently end up hurting rather than helping those most in need in our society.

Thus for those sake of those children and their often poor and/or single parents living in rural BC, one can only hope that Minister Abbott will intervene before the Shriner buses are forced off the road due to wear and tear and a lack of capital funds to replace them.

For more information on the Care Cruiser Program visit their website at

Mike Geoghegan is a consultant, entrepreneur and radio personality based in Victoria BC. You can contact Mike via his website at check out his columns at and listen to him debate BC politics Thursdays at 8:20 AM on