The B.C. government has missed the deadline for its review into the possibility of providing air conditioners during heat waves as recommended by a coroners’ death review panel last year.
The panel was convened to look into the deadly 2021 heat dome in the province where 619 people died in one week amid record high temperatures.
In its June 2022 report, the panel recommended the Ministry of Health — together with the Ministry of Poverty Reduction — complete a review into providing air conditioners as medical devices through existing programs in the province, like the medical equipment provision program (MEPP), during extreme heat events.
The government was expected to complete their review after consulting with “vulnerable populations” and make their findings public by Dec. 1, 2022.
Now, more than three months later, medical and policy experts are questioning why it’s taking B.C. so long to approve the potentially life-saving policy, given the increasing likelihood of future deadly heat waves and the number of people with disabilities living without access to cooling devices.
“Air conditioners are a key strategy for saving people’s lives and keeping them well during heat events,” said Dr. Jennifer Baumbusch, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of nursing, who works with older adults.
“The majority of people who died during the heat dome were older adults, many were women, many were disabled, and many were also poor.”
Baumbusch says air conditioners are particularly relevant in B.C., after the panel found that many people died in smaller apartments without appropriate ventilation.
“One of the challenges is for people to be able to have that amount of money upfront to pay for the air conditioner,” the professor said.
“I think that we already have a comprehensive system in our province for people to be able to get medical equipment, without having to pay out of pocket.
“Adding air conditioners to that list would mean working with vendors to ensure that people, in a similar way to which they get their wheelchairs or walkers … they could be adding air conditioners.”
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry said the government “had undertaken” an internal policy review for providing cooling devices as medical equipment, and that it was being finalized.
“The ministry is ensuring that a thorough analysis and appropriate engagement is done before finalizing the report,” the spokesperson added, when asked why the government had missed the Dec. 1 deadline.
The spokesperson also mentioned the ministry reached out to other arms of the government — Pharmacare, the MEPP and Fraser Health — during the review, and that a consultation process with vulnerable people was still ongoing.
The spokesperson did not specify when the review would be released.
Policy analyst questions speed of response
The government said it had looked at programs like the income tax rebate as a potential funding source for cooling devices, as well as other jurisdictions — like Ontario — that already have programs providing cooling devices to people who can’t afford it.
Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy analyst who co-wrote a memo in 2021 recommending Vancouver make cooling devices available as medical equipment, criticized the province for how long it was taking to address the issue.
“After the heat dome happened in Oregon … by the next summer, they had air conditioning distribution programs for poor people,” she told CBC News.
“Poor people didn’t decide to put themselves in housing that’s poor quality, that’s very hot,” added Peters, who resigned from the coroners’ death panel because of what she described as a lack of urgency.
“The only intervention they [the B.C. government] have to offer you is by giving you an alert on your phone.
“They have been indifferent to the poverty and suffering of disabled people.”
Peters argues policymakers need to apply philosopher Martha Fineman’s “vulnerability theory”, which suggests that vulnerability is a universal phenomenon, and that social institutions either provide or fail to provide people with resilience.
“The climate-change challenges provide perhaps a particularly apt illustration of what Fineman’s universal vulnerability approach, which she contrasts with individual rights-based approaches to promote justice, has to offer,” Peters wrote in a paper analyzing the issue.