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B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks at Langara College in Vancouver, on Jan. 9.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia will send cancer patients out-of-country for radiation therapy in response to growing wait times and a backlog at home.

Beginning May 29, eligible patients will be sent to Bellingham, Wash., to receive radiation therapy at either PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center or North Cascade Cancer Center, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday.

The initiative will first focus on those with breast and prostate cancer as they are the largest group receiving radiation therapy and they have waited the longest, he said. Up to 50 patients a week will be sent south for care, or about 4,800 over the next two years.

Mr. Dix blamed the backlog on B.C.’s growing and aging population, regional cancer centres being in the process of replacing aging machines used for radiation therapy, and human-resource shortages.

“Across most categories in B.C., we are making significant improvements in reducing wait times,” he said. “However, with respect to radiation therapy, that is not the case.”

The Globe and Mail has been reporting extensively on growing wait times at BC Cancer, the province’s cancer agency, and the implications on health outcomes. An investigation last September found that only one in five patients referred to an oncologist receive a first consultation within the recommended two weeks, according to internal BC Cancer data, and radiation wait times are among the longest in Canada.

From April 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2022, 85 per cent of British Columbians requiring radiation therapy were able to start within four weeks, the national benchmark for the maximum amount of time deemed appropriate to wait, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. That made B.C. the province with the second-worst performance in a country where the national average was 96 per cent.

Mr. Dix said Monday that that had fallen further to 82.9 per cent. But internal BC Cancer data, obtained by The Globe, showed that only 77 per cent were meeting the four-week benchmark to begin radiation therapy in May.

Under the temporary initiative, a BC Cancer support team will arrange appointments and co-ordinate travel plans. Eligible patients will have all costs related to treatment covered, including travel, meals and accommodation. The province will also cover all costs for medical services, testing and medication related to the radiation treatment, and it will pay for each patient to have a support person with them.

BC Cancer head Kim Nguyen Chi acknowledged that waiting a single day for treatment is difficult when faced with a cancer diagnosis.

“At BC Cancer, we strive to deliver radiation as quickly as possible for every patient,” he said. “But with the increasing demands for cancer care and radiation therapy, there’s been increasing pressures on our staff and infrastructure to meet patients’ needs. With this announcement, we can take immediate action to improve access to radiation treatment for people throughout B.C., including those living in rural and remote areas.”

Dozens of BC Cancer insiders, including four past presidents whose leadership spans 25 years, have told The Globe that growing bureaucracy and short-sightedness at the agency are to blame for growing wait times and staff burnout now plaguing the system.

In February, the province announced a cancer plan that includes $440-million to address the pressures. Some of this money will go toward a push to hire more oncologists, who will get a $62,000 raise to be paid $472,000 per year – a salary higher than their counterparts in any other province.

The funding will also extend hours into the weekend for some treatment centres and help patients living in smaller towns across the province travel to the agency’s regional hubs for care.

About 30,000 British Columbians received a new cancer diagnosis in 2021. That figure is expected to climb to 45,000 by 2034.

Timely treatment can be critical for cancer survival and recovery, and a delay at one stage can compound overall wait times. A study published in the British Medical Journal in November, 2020, found that delaying treatment for cancer by even a month can increase a person’s risk of dying by between 6 and 13 per cent.

BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said it was shocking that Mr. Dix would applaud sending cancer patients across the border for radiation treatment.

“B.C. used to be a leader in cancer care in Canada,” Ms. Furstenau said in a statement. “Today’s announcement shows that the system we currently have is failing to meet people’s needs.”

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