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Citizens’ referendum planned on future of hospital services in Niagara and province-wide

Posted: April 19, 2023

(April 18th, 2023)

By: Allan Benner, The Standard

Niagara Health Coalition members are giving residents a chance to share their thoughts about the future of hospitals across the region and province. Coalition members gathered in front of the St. Catharines hospital Tuesday morning to launch its community-run referendum, focusing on provincial plans to increase medical procedures done in private clinics as well as plans for Niagara hospitals.

“Of all the regions in Ontario in the past few years, Niagara has been the worst hit by restructuring,” said Niagara Health Coalition president Sue Hotte.

The local coalition is one of about 40 organizations participating in the referendum that fall under the Ontario Health Coalition umbrella.

In addition to a province-wide referendum question regarding Bill 60 — legislation expected to be considered this week at Queen’s Park increasing the number of surgical and diagnostic procedures conducted in private medical clinics rather than hospitals — Hotte said the Niagara Health Coalition will add a second referendum question asking: “Do you want all present Niagara hospital sites and services to be protected and enhanced?”

Fort Erie resident Heather Kelley discussed concerns in her community about Niagara Health plans that will close urgent care centres in Port Colborne and Fort Erie, while reducing services at the Welland hospital when the new hospital in south Niagara Falls opens. “On a stormy winter day, trying to get in or out of Fort Erie — it’s just not possible. And the fear is, many of our residents won’t be able to get the help they need,” she said. “Yes, they’re building a brand-new hospital in Niagara Falls which may not be accessible to the people in Fort Erie and also the people in Port Colborne … and Wainfleet, all of these people are travelling on the roads. “There are just so many issues with the closure,” she said. Kelley said if the province can provide increased funding to private clinics, “surely they can fund the public services that are already there — already established.”

“We need to keep Fort Erie urgent care open and Port Colborne, and we need to keep all of the services that are available in Welland,” she said, adding services should instead be enhanced.

Niagara Health provided a statement in response to concerns, saying it is “charting a path forward to transform how we deliver services over the next decade, while increasing our capacity and attracting more healthcare workers to our community.”

“Our Transforming Care plan will build a leading, modern and responsive health system across three cornerstone hospitals in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland, and support our work with municipalities on addressing healthcare gaps in south Niagara,” the statement said. “This plan allows us to provide the right care at the right time, for every person in the Niagara region, and at its core is focused on providing acute and emergency services to all residents of Niagara. We look forward to hearing directly from the community ourselves in the coming months to discuss and gather feedback on the plan.”

The plans are also expected to help Niagara Health address staff shortages. “Expanding and modernizing infrastructure, like the new Niagara South hospital, is a critical part of attracting talent, increasing capacity, and transforming service delivery,” the statement said. Minister of Health press secretary Hannah Jensen said the new south Niagara hospital will have 159 more beds than the combined total at the current Port Colborne, Fort Erie and Niagara Falls facilities, while the Welland hospital will “offer a new model of 24/7 emergency services,” as well as diagnostic services.

Regarding Bill 60, Jensen said, “Premier (Doug) Ford and Minister (Sylvia) Jones have been clear, Ontarians will always access our healthcare system with their OHIP card, not their credit card,” she said. “Our government knows wait times for surgeries and diagnostic tests have been increasing year after year. We are not okay with the status quo and know more work needs to be done.” She said the government has so far had 41 deputations in-person or by zoom and over 400 written submissions on the legislation. Hotte said at least 40 voting stations will be set up throughout Niagara on May 26 and 27 for the referendum — at grocery stores, doctors offices, pharmacies, “markets, malls and many other stores.” “We want to meet people where they are, on the streets,” she said, adding voting stations will be set up in each of Niagara’s 12 municipalities. “We’re going to be there.”

People will also have an opportunity to vote in the referendum online starting May 2, at “We’re having a great response. People are coming forward to help in every which way they can,” Hotte said, adding volunteers have been pitching in to help secure voting locations and helping prepare for the referendum. She said a list of voting locations in Niagara will be provided once they’re finalized, while more than 1,000 locations for voting stations have already been secured across the province.

Meanwhile, referendums are also being set up in workplaces throughout Niagara, with most taking place between May 8 and 19. An advance referendum was also held at Brock University earlier this month, giving students an opportunity to cast ballots before their semester ended for the year.

Hotte said the referendum is open to voters 16 years old and up, and they’re “asking people to take the voters pledge.”

“They will be signing off that they’re only voting once, so we try to maintain the integrity of the vote,” she said. Following the referendum, Hotte said coalition members will “work like the devil to make sure all those votes are counted.”

“On May 31, guess what Premier Ford, we’re coming with all those ballot boxes. We want to show you that people are very concerned about Bill 60, about this legislation to privatize our health care system,” she said.

Coalition member Helen Hamilton said they’re hoping to fill two school buses with ballot boxes, and deliver them to Queen’s park. “It affects everybody. There’s nobody in Ontario that this doesn’t affect,” she said.

“If you are not voting, you are not participating in this. This is huge. … Get out and support our health care system that we are world-renowned for.”

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