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Gates presents petition calling for restored Niagara Health urgent care hours

Posted: November 23, 2023

(November 22, 2023)

By: Allan Benner, The Standard

Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates has presented petitions signed by more than 4,000 people to the provincial government demanding restoration of 24/7 urgent care centre services in Fort Erie and Port Colborne hospitals, calling the current situation “completely unacceptable.”

Gates said the time it can take to travel to an out-of-town hospital “can make the difference between life and death.”

Gates shared stories of people attended to by staff at the Fort Erie urgent care centre (UCC), whom he said would not likely have survived if not for the care they received at the facility.

During a media conference before presenting the petition to the legislature Wednesday, he said a man who suffered a heart attack was “rushed to Douglas Memorial (Hospital) where the staff were able to stabilize him and send him to Hamilton for open heart surgery.”

“I’m happy today to say he’s still alive,” he said. “If that hospital had been closed and it happened after 8 o’clock at night, he would have died.”

In another example, he said the life of a seven-year-old boy was saved by staff at the hospital when he arrived suffering from appendicitis.

He said that boy, too, would have died if the UCC had been closed.

“If you have a heart attack after 8 o’clock and you have to get to that highway and get to Niagara Falls or St. Catharines, before you get there that individual is probably going to die. Make no mistake about it.”

Since July 5, hours of operation have been 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Niagara Health said anyone requiring emergency care should call 911 or go directly to an emergency department — not a UCC.

“The UCCs are not for emergencies or acute care and have not been since 2009,” it said in a steatment. “Any suggestion to the contrary puts patient safety at risk and we implore the community to not spread misinformation. If someone presents to a UCC needing emergency care, our staff will co-ordinate the transfer of the patient to one of our EDs.”

Gates said 37,000 people in the area rely on the Fort Erie hospital, including about 8,000 residents who do not have a family doctor.

He said the next closest hospital “is up to a half-hour away, and that’s not including what happens in the winter.”

“Last winter we had a historic winter storm in Fort Erie that left residents snowed in in their homes for days. Major roads were closed including the QEW. In situations like that here we have difficult weather, bad traffic conditions and a resident is having a heart attack at 11 o’clock at night, having an urgent care centre open in Fort Erie can literally save lives.”

Heather Kelley from Fort Erie Healthcare SOS, who joined Gates for the media conference broadcast on the website, said the QEW is sometimes closed due to winter storms.

“What is the plan to treat people in Fort Erie if the highway is closed and we can’t access the hospital?” she asked. “We might be able to risk the journey to our local facility on our roads, but to get to Niagara Falls may be absolutely impossible.

“This is not equal health care. Every community deserves a place where patients can be stabilized and taken care of when there are no other options available,” Kelley said.

Sue Hotte from Niagara Health Coalition said the population in Fort Erie is quickly growing, increasing by almost 10,000 people in less than 10 years.

“That is going to continue. Unless we have really good services in Fort Erie, people there are not getting access to the care they need — especially the seniors,” she said.

Gates said the nightly UCC closures also aggravate problems such as long wait times at emergency departments in over-capacity hospitals in neighbouring communities.

Although Niagara Health blamed the nightly closures on difficulty the hospital system is facing filling staff vacancies, Hotte said “one of the problems is they don’t have all the money they need to be able to actually hire the staff that they need.”

The hospital system, however, said the issues are a direct result of an ongoing, health human resources shortage being experienced across the country.

“This is a staffing issue, not a funding issue. There are not enough doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals to go around,” its statement said.

“One way to support care in the community is ensuring all Niagara residents have access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. The region has long faced shortages of primary care providers and we remain committed to work with community partners and government to address the shortage of physicians and comprehensive primary care in Niagara.”

Gates criticized the provincial government for recent legislation that has impacted health-care services and providers, such as Bill 124 that capped public sector wage increases and Bill 60 that opens the door to more private health-care services.

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