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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Communities Consider Co-ops as Alternatives to Health Privatization

    Hospital closures, privatization and dwindling health care services have left many British Columbians searching for better ways of delivering accessible, quality health care.

    But for some communities, in both the Interior and the Lower Mainland, the cooperative model is providing an alternative both to the status quo and to the privatization “solution.”

    So far, the municipalities of Surrey, Nelson, Sparwood, Kimberly, Sooke, and Vernon have incorporated community cooperative ventures to replace hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities being closed by the Liberal government as it restructures the health care system for corporate take-over. Other communities, such as Enderby at the North end of Okanagan Lake, are also looking to set up similar enterprises in an effort to keep health services free from commercial profit demands and under community control.

    “It’s all about control,” said Dee Wejr, chair of the citizens’ steering committee in Enderby made up of local residents and laid off health care workers. “In the past we have had services brought into the community only to have them disappear later on. We want to be able to decide what we need and what we don’t need.”

    The co-op plan includes holistic, Western, First Nations traditional and alternative methods of health care treatment. The services fell into four categories: health and medical services; living places, such as supportive living programs and projects; learning (health and wellness), and leadership and development. The proposed services also include things like intravenous therapy, extended and palliative care, health workshops and counseling. 

    “It’s been our feeling for a long time that the writing is on the wall across Canada in terms of the medical system and I think it’s very important for local people to start taking charge of their own destiny,” said Mayor Gordon Dale, who strongly supports the new co-op model for health services. “The idea has struck a chord in the community. People are eager to regain control of the type and quality of health care they rely on.”

    But communities like Surrey, Sparwood, and in particular Nelson, are even further ahead in developing such ventures, according to John Restakis, executive director of the BC Cooperative Association, which has been providing expertise in setting up these enterprises.

    “The city of Nelson set up the Community First Health Co-operative after their hospital was shut down, and now it has 1100 members,” he said. “They recently put in a bid to operate a long-term care facility in their community. But despite a really credible business plan, and overwhelming community support, they weren’t even short-listed.”

    The bid went to a large for-profit corporation, as have most of the contracts let out by the government. Although he is not certain, he suspects the government refused the bid because of its dedication to the corporate take-over of the health care system. That means avoiding community-based enterprises.

    Nonetheless, Restakis says this set back has not dampened the enthusiasm for the venture, and the cooperative, with the support of local businesses, health care unions and the Nelson and district Credit Union, is developing fundraising and capitalization plans.

    He adds a similar development in Sparwood, where local residents together with the BC Nurses Union and CUPE have set up a co-op, has recently gained the support of the city council, which has invested funds to hire and coordinator to develop a walk-in community health clinic.

    Meanwhile, in Surrey, the newly established Rainbow Health Co-op already has a clinic set up and is offering counseling services to the region’s large Indo-Canadian community—one of the few services in the area to do so.

    From their point of view, a growing number of communities have come to feel that real health reform may have less to do with money and politics, and more to do with local control and ensuring that health systems are responsive and directly accountable to those who use them.


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