First Nations Health Authority board chairwoman Lydia Hwitsum sees an endless stream of possibilities for improving the quality of care for aboriginals in B.C.
With the health authority set to take over all of the duties previously assigned to Health Canada as of Oct. 1, Hwitsum said her organization is committed to providing more access to primary care for aborginals in rural and remote parts of the province, including the north.
"I think we can do it better by working together on priorities of First Nations," she said Thursday during a visit to Prince George to take part in a First Nation Health Authority (FNHA) northern caucus meeting. "We would not be doing this if we didn't think we could do it better."
Years in the making, the FNHA began assuming some of the responsibilities previously held by the federal government in July. Under the Canadian constitution, the federal government has held the responsibility for providing health care to Aboriginals, while provincial governments are responsible for delivering it to the rest of the population.
The phased transition started with the FNHA taking over policy and planning activities as well as the non-insured health benefit headquarters. Hwitsum called that first transition a "huge test" but said her organization was able to handle it successfully.
Another big challenge will come next month when the FNHA begins delivering programing.
Hwitsum expects a seamless transition and she said patients shouldn't see any noticeable change in how they receive services, at least not right away. To begin with. the FNHA will continue with the programming as is, but the organization is already beginning to plan for the transformational phase when it will modify programs to better suit First Nations needs.
"We're giving ourselves a two-year window to ensure we have the opportunity to be fully organized and ready to deliver and design programs and services for First Nations," Hwitsum said. "Over time we'll see a reflection of First Nations priorities in terms of health and health services."
Among the ideas Hwitsum suggested could be part of the transformation is recruiting more nurse practitioners to work in the north to supplement the lack of physicians serving in rural and remote part of the province.
To make the transition easier, the FNHA is hiring about 250 people who had worked for the federal government. Those hires will join the existing staff of about 60 people and will be able to provide stability as the new leadership team takes over.
"It's really exciting work because the possibilities are endless in some ways," Hwitsum said. "At the same time it's a huge challenge - we all know the struggles and challenges of the existing healthcare system so we know what we're walking into."
The regional meetings taking place this week in Prince George feature about 200 delegates discussing developmental work needed for the transfer. Both political and health leaders from First Nations around the north are taking part in the discussion.
The FNHA has divided itself into five regions, which generally mirror the boundaries of the existing health authorities, but some changes have been made to the borders to keep certain aboriginal communities grouped together.
Hwitsum said the regional dynamic is important because it brings a local voice to the table. A partnership accord has already been signed with Northern Health and the FNHA is looking forward to working with other regional groups interested in improving the delivery of health care.
One example is the Prince George-based Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operations Society, which is looking to bring doctor-led air ambulance service to the north.
"I think it's a good example of another area where we can partner," Hwitsum said. "When we're looking at the north and the design and delivery of services, we're going to have to do this in partnership and partnering with people who want care and are prepared to do the necessary groundwork."