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Ontario Health Coalition raise concerns about emergency department closure

Posted: September 28, 2023

(September 27 2023)

By: Elisa Nguyen, Fort Frances Times

Small, rural and local hospital services are under threat of permanent closures, says the Ontario Health Coalition who urges the Ford government to take action.

“Emergency departments are repeatedly closing down, birthing closed, critical care gravely understaffed, and yet the Ford government is doing substantially nothing,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition.

In northwestern Ontario, several emergency department closures occurred last year; however, Mehra said her main source of concern for the northwest pertains to the lack of planning for staff recruitment and retention.

The Wilson Memorial General Hospital in Marathon, Ontario, closed last December due to difficulties with staffing and essential services.

Red Lake Clinic in the northwestern Ontario town also temporarily closed down its emergency room due to a physician shortage in 2022.

The province cancelled funding for summer locums at the end of the last fiscal year, on March 31, Metra said. Although the funding has been reinstated, she feels that there hasn’t been much progress.

“How long do people continue like that and with the aging physician workforce,” she said. “I think that the issues are a bit different [in the northwest]. The distances are much more severe if anything closes… But what we’re seeing is this failure to act as the crisis worsens, it really does raise your red flags for the Northwest.”

Jules Tupker, chair of the Thunder Bay Health Coalition, also said he is concerned for his region.

“There’s a real concern in northwestern Ontario because of the distances,” he said. “Relating to Fort Frances, there’s an emergency room in Rainy River Health Center, which is an hour’s drive from Fort France. There’s an emergency room there, but it’s not mandated that there’s an emergency doctor that’s available.”

Also in attendance at the press conference on September 15 were representatives from southern Ontario who described what they saw happening at their local hospitals.

“Within the past year and a bit, the [Campbellford Memorial Hospital] emergency department has closed a number of times,” said Kim English, resident of Campbellford, professor of nursing and member of the Northumberland Health Coalition.

In Campbellford, emergency department closures often require residents to drive upwards of an hour to access services, placing an additional strain on nearby hospitals.

“It places that burden on the residents of our community who now have to travel to seek care when there is a closure. And it speaks to equity issues for residents of rural communities such as mine, when we don’t have access to even basic emergency care,” she said.

Over in St. Marys, located near Stratford, Clinton Public Hospital and Seaforth Community Hospital has also experienced emergency department closures.

Resident Karel Jennings said the closures often happened at the same time during the summer, a big cause for concern as summer tourism is often the busiest time of year.

“And these ER closures are taking place over weekends, sometimes long weekends, when many local events are happening, which could drive demand and need for your services. So that’s been an item of concern for myself,” Jennings said.

Adding onto the point about summer closures, Sue Hotte, chair of the Niagara Health Coalition, said that reduced urgent care hours has been a concern.

There are approximately 30,000 more people that stay at their cottages along the shore in the summer and a lack of public transportation during late evening hours.

“Where are you going to be going if you need to go to a hospital,” Hotte asks. “It’s a real problem for the people to try to access care when they need it.”

At the heart of the issue is the fear that occasional emergency departments foreshadow a permanent closure.

A local hospital in Chesley, Ontario has had their emergency department closed for an 18 day period. This came after multiple weekly closures throughout the summer.

“We’ve had to update our website with closures to inform the public,” said Brenda Scott, chair of the Chesley Hospital Community Support and Grey Bruce Health Coalition. “So we have a real concern that this foreshadows perhaps a permanent closure of our ER and we’re fighting that.”

Concerned that the aging population and the nearby Amish community may have nowhere to turn in the case of an emergency, Scott hopes that the Ford government will take account.

“We also have a very large senior population here,” she said. “And we have a whole number of Amish and Mennonite neighbors… if you think that the race to find an open ER is critical when you have car, imagine how you would do it in a in a buggy.”

“We definitely have to call the Ford government to account for this. And on September 25, we’re going to try and do that,” Scott said.

The coalition is planning a major protest against the closures and privatization of Ontario’s hospitals on opening day of the Ontario Legislature, Monday, September 25 at noon at Queen’s Park outside the Main Legislative Assembly.

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