British Columbians just got an up-close look at the consequences of the grey tsunami that's beginning to wash over their province's health-care system.
On Monday night, there wasn't enough room for all of the patients who had arrived for emergency care at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. So the hospital set up an overflow ER at the Tim Hortons next door.
It was after closing, so there was no concern that customers might spit up their double-doubles at the sight of an IV drip being started on the 80-year-old stretched out before a rack of Boston Creams. The half-a-dozen people who received treatment in the coffee shop said conditions were preferable to the crowded corridors of the hospital's ER.
You can imagine the outrage the story provoked. And the jokes. B.C. Nurses Union president Debra McPherson said that, if the incident didn't make the provincial government "wake up and smell the coffee," nothing would. Funny line. But not particularly helpful.
Naturally, the NDP called the situation "outrageous" and indicative of a government that has lost its way on the health-care file. Predictable. Not to mention hypocritical.
Health policy experts, nurses, doctors and pundits have been sounding the alarm on the grey tsunami's arrival for years now, not to mention the pressures that an aging population will exert on the health-care system for the next 30 years.
Sure, what happened on Monday at Royal Columbian doesn't happen every day. But doctors say ER business is up 10 per cent over last year because the population is getting older, and also expanding through immigration. Everyone seems to agree that ER visits are going to increase in the coming years. So it may not be unusual down the road for a hospital to turn the basement of a local church or the gym of a nearby school into a temporary ER to handle an unusually busy night.
My advice to those baby boomers worried about arriving at a hospital with a pain in their chest and being shipped to a nearby McDonald's to be treated: Put down that Big Mac you just bought and go for a long run, instead.
Here's the sad reality. Our hospitals are bursting at the seams, and ER horror stories are now commonplace. The situation has reached crisis levels in Alberta, the richest province in the country. But it's bad in every province. Governments are already throwing insane amounts of money at health care - approaching half of their provincial budgets - but it's still no match for increasing demand.
Governments are trying to spend their way out of the problem rather than make tough, but necessary, decisions that might help fix it. Or at least make it more sustainable. Why? Because of the possible repercussions at the polls. Politicians are scared. Taxpayers, meantime, demand better health care but don't want their taxes raised and don't want governments to cut spending in other areas. Trying squaring that if you're a premier.
Everyone talks about not wanting a two-tier health-care system that already exists. The rich will get taken care of whether governments expand private health care or not. Still, no one wants to have an honest conversation about measures - delisting some coverage, for instance - that might lighten the burden on a system that is groaning and wheezing under the weight of all those using it.
Think putting patients inside a Tim Hortons is a problem? Wait until hospitals start sending them to the drive-thru.