Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
The picture painted by the Ontario Health Coalition and its union partners at a public meeting in Stratford Thursday was that of a local health care system on life support, crippled by years of funding shortfalls.
The meeting was organized in response to recent news that the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance plans to reduce the overall number of beds across its four sites by 17 as part of a larger realignment of services strategy. According to Natalie Mehra, executive director for the health coalition, Stratford General Hospital would lose nine rehabilitation beds and 13 complex continuing care beds under the proposed changes, which would also impact bed distribution in St. Marys and Seaforth.
She said having fewer beds will create a backlog of people waiting in the emergency department. That will put more pressure on hospitals to discharge people, possibly before they are ready, resulting in more re-admissions and people suffering. Or patients will be transferred to another site where there are beds available, outside of their community.
"We think it's inhumane that people who are often elderly, often have serious and complex care needs and who require their family's support, are moved out of their home communities to recuperate," she added.
Mehra was also critical of the alliance's plan to have areas of specialization within each of its hospitals. Outpatient physiotherapy has been consolidated into St. Marys and Seaforth and cataract services into Clinton. Stratford will focus more on acute care and is also currently in talks with the Local Health Integration Network about opening a regional acute stroke unit.
Mehra said this again forces patients to travel for treatment.
"As a model, it's kind of the (opposite) of the idea of a community hospital," she said, adding people expect quality services that are close to home.
Canadian Union of Public Employees researcher Doug Allan said reductions in beds are happening across the province in small and rural hospitals as the government tightens its public sector spending. Health care funding in Ontario is the lowest in all of Canada, he noted, and has been shrinking since the Liberals came into power in 2003-04.
This has had an adverse effect on the quality of care smaller hospitals are able to provide, he said. Nurses are worked harder and are more prone to make errors, there are fewer beds and admissions, and the high occupancy of beds can lead to difficulty accessing services, more cancellations of surgeries, and higher instances of infection.
"Make no mistake, the future of hospitals in small-town Ontario is at stake here," he said, adding that in order for things to improve, the province has to increase its funding for health care.
Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance CEO, Andrew Williams, was in attendance for the public meeting but not asked to participate. He told reporters afterwards, "I didn't agree with an awful lot of what was said," and suggested the alliance has to do a better job in terms of public education. He noted at no point has the Ontario Health Coalition contacted the alliance to discuss the changes that are being proposed.
"We get painted with the same brush as every community in this province, and I really take exception to that," he added.
The bed realignment, said Williams, will only affect unoccupied beds and result in no service reductions. And while some staffing roles within the organization will be reduced due to the changes – the alliance is currently working through a collective bargaining process after offering voluntary retirement packages to nurses earlier this summer – others are expected to increase, resulting in additional staff. Part of that complement, for the first time, will include personal support workers. Williams said their presence in hospitals will free up nurses to do the jobs they are specially for.
He also said the changes being proposed are not financially driven, though he did note health care organizations are having to rethink how they provide services in today's economy.
"It is tight, there's no two ways about it," he said.
Williams added health care today is moving towards more specialization, regardless of the community. The benefit to this model within the alliance, he said, is it creates four viable sites that each play an important role.
"We feel we are making decisions that are in the best interests of the health care system in this area," he added.
But the alliance could still be in for a very public fight. Mehra, of the health coalition, appealed to the citizens in attendance at the meeting to work with the organization in campaigning against the bed cuts and the lack of government funding. Plans are in the works to form a local committee to, among other things, get a petition started and put up yard signs to raise awareness.
"The cuts have gone too far already in Ontario. There isn't room to cut anymore," Mehra said.