British Columbia's health minister says some cancer patients will be referred to two clinics in Washington in an effort to reduce wait times for radiation therapy.
Adrian Dix says that from May 29, BC Cancer will offer eligible patients the opportunity to undergo treatment at one of two partner clinics in Bellingham, Wash., with costs related to treatment, travel, accommodation and meals fully covered.
He says the opportunity is initially open to breast and prostate cancer patients and the two Bellingham clinics will see up to 50 patients from B.C. each week.
Dix says the arrangement is temporary and aimed at getting people the care they need, sooner, as the province works to expand its own cancer care services.
If the change doesn't lead to enough added capacity for radiation therapy in B.C.'s cancer care system, Dix says the program may be opened up to more patients.
Dix says the province is making the move because B.C. hasn't been meeting its target for ensuring cancer patients receive radiation therapy in a timely manner.
Nearly 83 per cent of B.C. patients are starting radiation within 28 days of the date on which they're ready for the treatment, a timeline that does not meet the clinical benchmarks the province has set as a goal, Dix told a news conference on Monday.
Dix says a BC Cancer support team will help patients who opt to go to Bellingham arrange their appointments and co-ordinate their travel plans.
He says travel and accommodation costs will also be covered for one caregiver for each patient, along with costs related to the treatment itself.
The delays in accessing radiation therapy in B.C. are due to factors including shortages of key personnel and the process to replace certain equipment, Dix says.
The province is addressing the challenges by boosting compensation, increasing training seats and focusing on staff retention and recruitment, he says.
B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau issued a statement saying B.C. residents need access to health care in their own communities, and it's "shocking" Dix would applaud sending patients across the border for treatment.
"While it is critical people receive the treatment they need, this initiative to send people for radiation to the United States reinforces what former premier Horgan said last summer, that the health care system is teetering," Furstenau says.
The B.C. government released a 10-year cancer care action plan earlier this year, with funding and programs aimed at reducing wait times for treatment and expanding services and supports for patients in anticipation of increasing numbers of cancer diagnoses as the province's population grows and ages.
The partnership with the Bellingham clinics could help 4,800 patients over the next two years, providing about 24,000 sessions of radiation, Dix says.
During the same time, B.C. is expecting about 1,000 new patients to require radiation treatment, the Health Ministry says in a statement.