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Chronic underfunding hits Orillia’s hospital

Posted: May 8, 2016

(May 8, 2016)

Author: Frank Matys, Orillia Today

Chronic underfunding is taking a toll on Orillia’s hospital.

The question is: what will be the impact on staff and patients if the local facility continues to face multi-million dollar shortfalls?

In the eyes of the Ontario Health Coalition – a group dedicated to protecting public health care – the future would be undoubtedly bleak for the local facility.

The coalition’s executive director, Natalie Mehra predicts, “a hospital that has more patients than it’s funded for, that is understaffed and overcrowded, in which care levels continually go down.”

Mehra’s comments follow in the wake of news that the local facility will cut 16 beds in the face of a $5.9 million shortfall.

The resulting budget plan will also impact the equivalent of 35 full-time jobs.

Simcoe North MPP Patrick Brown places the blame on the provincial government for what he says is continual underfunding of Ontario’s healthcare system.

“It’s non-stop, the diminishment of healthcare we are seeing in Ontario,” said the Progressive Conservative leader. “But it is acute in Simcoe County”

The hospital had success with streamlining and other cost-saving measures in the early days of what is now a chronic funding gap.

But after four consecutive years of funding freezes, and with only a modest increase to the base budget, “it is harder and harder to do that,” president and CEO Pat Campbell said.

“So we are seeing this year and last year more implications in terms of us having to cut services that impact directly on patients,” she added. “That is not something that is in the long-term best interests of the hospital, and it is certainly not something that is in the long-term best interests of our community.”

Front-line workers feel the impact directly.

“It puts tremendous pressure on the staff to be able to manage the patient needs and flow the patients through the hospital in an effective way,” Campbell said.

The current funding formula has driven hospitals to become more efficient and brought greater certainty for patients requiring specific procedures, such as hip and knee surgeries, which the province funds on a per-patient basis, she added.

The challenge, says Campbell, lies in the government’s shift away from hospitals as the “centre of the universe” toward primary (family physicians) and community care.

In-patient or residential hospital services are increasingly reserved for those who “absolutely need them” and for as short a period of time as possible.

“But the adaptation at the community level doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with the constraint that’s being applied to hospital spending,” Campbell added.

Simcoe.com requested an interview with health minister Eric Hoskins and received a prepared statement on his behalf.

Hoskins said the province “remains committed to supporting improved care and outcomes for families in Orillia,” adding the government is boosting investments in hospitals by $345 million.

“This includes a $1.3 million increase to Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital,” he added.

Yet of the hospital’s $5.9 million budget shortfall this year, $2 million alone resulted from inflation, including rising utility costs and salaries.

Another $1.2 million went to cover increases in operating costs, such as an investment in electronic medical records.

Revenue, meanwhile is projected to fall by $2.7 million – partially due to a funding program that rewards hospitals based on numerous factors, the dominant ones being efficiency and population growth.

“Our population is … only slightly over the provincial average, whereas there are some communities in the province that are growing more rapidly than we are,” Campbell said.

Another program ties funding to a hospital’s emergency room performance, another area where Soldiers’ is taking a financial hit as it struggles to move patients from the ER to in-patient beds that often remain filled by so-called alternate-level-of-care patients.

Reducing the number of surgeries – as was done last year to balance the budget – impacts funding and lengthens waiting lists.

“While the formula is really pushing hospitals to become more efficient, I think one of the questions is, is that having an impact on access?” Campbell said.

Hoskins insists the province remains committed to high-quality care, adding hospitals “do excellent work and don’t make staffing decisions lightly.”

Orillia’s hospital will work with the North Simcoe Muskoka Local Health Integration Network “to manage these upcoming decisions,” he added.

What isn’t up for dispute is that some of those decisions will result in job losses.

According to the Ontario Nurses’ Association, seven Registered Nursing positions will be eliminated under the approved budget plan.

“Once again, this is short-sighted budget cutting on the backs of patients,” said Vicki McKenna, provincial vice-president. “This is a loss of a tremendous amount of care to that community, to that hospital.”

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