The West Coast is losing its Wheels for Wellness service.
“The reason is that financially it’s just a disaster. We get maybe $400 a year in donations,” Wheels for Wellness Society executive director Don Buchner told the Westerly News. “It doesn’t have to make money, but it should break even. The West Coast never came close.”
Buchner launched the program in 1997 and brought it to the Tofino-Ucluelet region in 2016. The service provides residents in rural communities transportation to medical appointments across the Island on a by-donation basis.
“For those residents who have been relying on Wheels for Wellness to get to needed medical appointments, it’s going to be devastating,” Tofino mayor Dan Law told the Westerly News. “It’s a difficult loss and I hope there are some options to find funding to keep it going…It’s been a great service for those that have used it.”
Buchner said some Wheels for Wellness routes receive funding from Island Health, but the West Coast route never did, adding other communities like Tahsis and Gold River also do not receive funding.
The West Coast tallied 56 Wheels for Wellness passengers in 2022 and Buchner suggested Port Hardy’s van runs daily with a full load and Gold River’s van runs three days a week with a “minimum of two people on board.”
He added it is very rare for the service to pull out of a community, with Port Alice being the only other route he could recall being nixed.
“I’m really sorry that it had to go this way. I’m genuinely sorry that we had to pull out of there. I really didn’t want to , but I have to look at the bottom line and that’s really what it is,” he said. “I hate it. I committed to it myself. To have it fail is horrible. I felt like crap, but I also have to look after the rest of the society.”
He added that the West Coast’s remoteness added to the low ridership as most trips could not be done in one day.
“Most often what was happening was a person would go out with us and then come back the next day, so we had to make two trips for that one person,” he said.
He explained the West Coast can keep the Wheels for Wellness van and launch its own, locally-run service, but a nonprofit organization would need to administer it and cover the costs.
“There’s dollars involved, lots of them, but the vehicle would be free,” he said.
He added if the West Coast organized the van it could add routes between Tofino and Ucluelet, which was not available with Wheels for Wellness as it did not meet the 60-kilometre threshold.
Ucluelet mayor Marilyn McEwen said she was disappointed to see Wheels for Wellness leave the community, but local officials are hoping to roll out a new service for those needing to get to medical appointments.
“Wheels are in motion to try and figure this out and how best to manage it,” she said.
“It’s a huge loss…There’s a lot of people that don’t have vehicles or don’t drive and need to get to appointments across the Island.”