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Town hall meeting hears horror stories of funding, service cuts; Ontario Health Coalition to send results of unofficial referendum Wynne’s way

Posted: May 6, 2016

(May 6, 2016)

Author: Jeffrey Ougler, Sault Star

Natalie Mehra, Ontario Health Coalition executive director, decries what she describes as the profound lack of funding being divvied out to Ontario hospitals during a town hall meeting Thursday evening, hosted by the Sault and Area Health Coalition at Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 25. JEFFREY OUGLER/SAULT STAR

SAULT STE. MARIE – From fears of further privatization to first-hand hospital horror stories, an abundance of beefs concerning Sault Ste. Marie — and Ontario — health-care services was aired Thursday evening during a town hall meeting hosted by Sault and Area Health Coalition.

“We can’t put up with this health-care system,” Sault coalition president Margo Dale told about 75 at the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 25.

Dale said she is “sick of the rhetoric” coming from the Ontario Liberals in their explanations for cutting front-line staff and services.

Her sentiments were echoed by a number of other speakers, including Natalie Mehra, Ontario Health Coalition executive director, who decried what she contends is a profound dearth of dollars being divvied out to Ontario hospitals.

On top of four years of freezes to base funding, there’s been nine full years in which support has not kept up to inflation.

“The gap gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Mehra said. “The hospital cuts have been very deep, indeed, and another year of inadequate funding for hospitals is going to mean more problems for patients, accessing care and services.”

In an earlier interview Thursday with The Sault Star, Mehra said Ontario, “by every reasonable measure,” underfunds its hospitals and has cut services more than any other “comparable jurisdiction.”

“The evidence is overwhelming,” she said. “It’s irrefutable that the cuts have gone too far and are causing harm. The issue is levelling political power and what we have is the vast majority of Ontarians do not support the cuts. They want services restored in their local hospitals and that’s a priority issue for every community that I’ve been too … And I’ve spent 16 years traveling the province non-stop.”

Northern Ontario, principally due to its geographic challenges, is especially getting short shrift,” Mehra said.

“Because of the distances involved and because of the costs involved for patients, the impact is much more severe on people,” she said, adding the impact of Liberal health-care policy in southern Ontario is “bad enough.”

The model Mehra said the province is using to centralize services into fewer communities is especially detrimental to the North.

“That doesn’t work for the south,” she added. “It definitely, in no way, works for Northern Ontario.”

The state of Northern health care was brought to the floor of Queen’s Park this week when, on Wednesday during Question Period, NDP health critic France Gélinas called on the government to stop continued cuts to care in the region.

Funding based on volumes doesn’t jibe with regional population distributions, Mehra said.

“It just doesn’t make any sense at all,” she said, adding Northern Ontario has many common complaints with small, rural southern Ontario communities.

The coalition argues the entire Ontario system has received short shrift for years and is below the Canadian per capita average by about $350 per person.

The provincial Liberals ended a four-year hospital base funding freeze in its latest budget, pledging to spend $60 million on hospital budgets, along with $75 million for palliative care and $130 million for cancer care.

The Ontario Health Coalition — and Sault and Area Health Coalition — are not impressed.

The local group argues on a regular bases, 22 admitted patients often wait in SAH’s Emergency Department for inpatient beds and admitted patients stay in emergency for as long as five days. Patients are lined along hallways on the floors or put in areas that were designed to be stretcher storage areas or lounges with no call buttons, oxygen, out of the nurses’ usual treatment areas.

Late last month, the Ontario Health Coalition launched an Ontario-wide, unofficial referendum to raise awareness about what it contends is a system in critical condition. The unofficial referendum asks Ontarians if they’re for or against the idea: “Ontario’s government must stop the cuts to our community hospitals and restore services, funding and staff to meet our communities’ needs for care.”

Ballot boxes will be distributed to businesses, workplaces and community centres across the province before May 28, when votes will be tallied and presented to Premier Kathleen Wynne.

“We have to make it so visible, and so impossible to ignore, the widespread public opposition to the cuts to local public hospitals so the province cannot continue to see all those cuts through,” Mehra said.

Similar public OHC-led lobbying helped limit and “significantly” change policy in a past Sault Area Hospital bid to usher in public-private partnerships (P3s), she added.

“The referendum is a way to make that so visible, so impossible to ignore by the provincial government, that we actually stop the cuts,” Mehra said.

Other speakers Thursday included Sault coalition member Peter Deluca, who spoke of the many challenges his elderly parents have endured thanks to what he dubbed less-than-stellar hospital experiences.

“We deserve the truth, we deserve answers, not just political talk,” said Deluca, adding concerned citizens must band together in order to prompt change and halt health-care cuts.

Glenda Hubley, president of Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) Local 46, “apologized”on behalf of SAH front-line employees, who, she says, do their best amid extreme pressures under which they work, but find it impossible to sometimes provide optimum care to everyone.

“Sometimes we can’t do it alone,” she told the meeting.

Some 100,000 nursing hours have been slashed at SAH in recent years thanks to a health-care system “driven by dollars,” Hubley said.

“Hospitals should never cut at the bedside,” she said, drawing applause.

At SAH, specifically, departments across the facility have been cut in recent years, including operating rooms, ICU, oncology, surgery, hemodialysis, infection control, patient care co-ordination, nursing and personal support. In February, the hospital reported that at the end of January, it had an operating deficit of $480,000, an improvement of more than $670,000 from the previous year at that time. Based on “anticipated actions” in the balance of the fiscal year, the year-end forecast continues to be a $1-million surplus, as budgeted.

Sara Labelle, chair of the Hospital Professionals Division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union who works as a medical laboratory technologist with Lakeridge Health, said there’s a “concerted effort” on the part of this government to privatize more and more services, which she contends violates the Canada Health Act.

“You don’t hear about (laboratory) layoffs because there’s nobody left,” she said.

Sharon Richer, of Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, said as a Health Sciences North employee, she’s seen “first-hand” how cuts affect health care.

“There won’t be change if we don’t make a ripple,” she said.

Laurie Lessard-Brown, president of Unifor Local 1359, told the meeting of how SAH’s recent “wiping out” of the personal support worker classification is wreaking havoc on staff and patients, alike.

Registered nurses and registered practical nurse must now pick up the slack, she added.

“Morale is lowest I’ve ever seen,” Lessard-Brown said.

And, as recent as last Tuesday, Unifor learned of a further four full-time RPN positions being cut while supervisor positions were being added.

“Cutting front-line workers is not acceptable,” Lessard-Brown said.

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