Angel Flight East Kootenay (AFEK), a volunteer-run transport service that flies Kootenay hospital patients to medical appointments in Kelowna, is to receive $300,000 in funding from the provincial government.
“Ensuring everyone living in B.C. receives the health care they deserve is a team effort, and that’s why we continue to work with partners like AFEK who make it easier for patients to access care throughout the East Kootenays by removing obstacles associated with travel,” said Adrian Dix, Minister of Health.
Dix also recognized BC Liberal MLA Doug Clovechok and the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) for their “ongoing support towards this initiative.”
“Our government remains committed to putting people first and we appreciate AFEK for helping us in that endeavour,” Dix said.
This new funding from the Province is part of a pilot project to support AFEK and aims to cover their increasing long-term operating costs. AFEK saw an increase in patients flown from 110 in 2021 to 570 in 2022. In late 2021 the organization purchased another aircraft to reduce weather-related cancellations and missed appointments.
“The Cessna 414A plane has made a huge impact by making our flights as safe and reliable as any carrier. In its first year of operations, we didn’t cancel a single flight due to weather,” said Brent Bidston, AFEK founder and board vice chair.
“With support from the Province, we can improve the stability of our organization as well as increase our operating capacity, so more people in the East Kootenay area can access the health services they need with fewer obstacles.”
In a press release issued May 10, Clovechok welcomed the funding as a “much-needed boost for rural health care in the Kootenays,” but also expressed criticism to the NDP government, saying more needs to be done to tackle the issue of access to health care resources in rural parts of the region.
“Angel Flight East Kootenay plays a vital role in bridging the gaps in health care access for rural residents, and I’m grateful for this new funding that will help them continue their important work,” said Clovechok.
“However, we can’t ignore the fact that this funding is a mere Band-Aid solution to the much deeper problem of underfunded and understaffed health care facilities in our communities. We need more resources and better access to care, and we need them now.”
Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka concurred, praising the volunteer efforts from Angel Flight East Kootenay, while also criticizing the provincial government for only providing stop-gap funding as opposed to something more structured and permanent.
“Angel Flight definitely fills the void to getting the travel assistance that we need, so it’s a really great day,” said Shypitka, who has been advocating for the organization since it first approached the RDEK for financial support in 2018.
However, Shypitka also raised the challenges of getting travel support to rural patients, noting other jurisdictions have programs in place through the Travel Assistance Program, such as rapid transit in the Lower Mainland or a bus service in northern B.C.
“In the Kootenays, we don’t have any of that,” Shypitka. “So not only are we remote and distanced from other large hospitals, and now we’re seeing a major shutdown of our relationship with Alberta, we’re kind of left on an island in the Kootenays.
“It’s great Angel Flight stepped up, but where’s government in all of this for a solid solution?”
“I’m proud of the work that Angel Flight East Kootenay does, and I know founder Brent Bidston and his team make a real difference in people’s lives,” Clovechok added. “But we can’t rely on volunteers and charity to solve the health care crisis in our communities. We need the government to step up and provide the resources and support that our residents deserve.”
In 2021 the Regional District of East Kootenay pledged $100,000 a year for five years to Angel Flight, and Clovechok, along with Area F Director Susan Clovechok met with Dix to ask for further funding.
In addition to government support, numerous local businesses, non-profit organizations and individual donors have stepped up to support Angel Flight East Kootenay operations.
Angel Flight is currently seeking more volunteer pilots who own their own plane to join their team. To learn more about Angel Flight, and how you can get involved, visit angelflightek.ca
With files from Trevor Crawley