NDP MLA on rural healthcare fact-finding tour

MLA Jennifer Rice is especially interested in the degree of access expectant mothers have to maternity care.

MLA Jennifer Rice (NDP; North Coast) is on a fact-finding mission to rural communities in B.C., to listen to parents, advocates, and service providers talk about access to healthcare, particularly maternity care.

“More healthcare is being centralized, and while the ‘hub and spoke’ model is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a struggle with the centralization of maternity services,” says Rice, the NDP rural healthcare spokesperson. “Research has found that the further a woman travels for maternity care, the greater the risk to both mother and baby.”

Rice lives in, and represents, the second-largest riding in the province in terms of geography. “We have a big area, but a small population; only 23,000,” she says. Many expectant mothers in her riding have to travel to larger centres such as Prince Rupert to have their babies, and must leave home four weeks before their due date; longer in the case of higher-risk pregnancies.

This means that mothers must find and pay for accommodation and meals for a month or more, and are far removed from their support system of family and friends. Rice speaks of one mother from the Bella Coola valley who, faced with a high-risk pregnancy, could not get affordable long-term rental or hotel accommodation. She ended up going to a department store and buying a tent to live in. When staff at a local furniture store found out, they chipped in and bought her a mattress.

The trigger for Rice’s fact-finding tour was a group of women in the Peace area. “They live in the heart of the natural gas industry, which is a big economic driver for the province, and they said that they were having to drive four hours for maternity care.”

Rice says that the situation has improved in some areas. All mothers from Haida Gwaii once had to leave the area to have their babies, but there are now two midwives there, who are able to assist with low-risk pregnancies, delivering some 20 babies a year. This has led to less stress on the part of mothers and their families.

“Many young First Nations women have never been to a big city, and they want their mother and aunties there for support. It’s important to them that giving birth go back to being a big event in the community. One elder said to me ‘We can’t be born here, and we can’t die here’.”

Rice acknowledges that there can’t be caesarian-section back-up in every town—“That’s not sustainable in small communities”—but believes that there should be more support for families. “The government should support women who have to travel to give birth.”

She also believes there’s “a happy medium” between a very medicalized way of delivering babies and a more holistic approach. “Something as natural as childbirth has become a medical procedure, where women have the stress not only of having a baby, but of travel, accommodation, and not having a support network.”

Health estimates will be coming soon, in the wake of the provincial budget that was tabled in February, and Rice says there will be an opportunity to question Health Minister Terry Lake in greater detail about healthcare spending. “Minister Lake is interested in rural health and rural maternity care, and it will be interesting to see what the government’s position is. I’ll be able to offer up recommendations and take the opportunity to ask questions.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for rural B.C.,” says Rice, “but I think we can do better.”

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