The emergency room has become a familiar place for Lee Parker.
A heart attack in November and subsequent complications have forced the 60-year-old Ottawa man into early retirement from his career as a service technician and into a life of repeated — and often lengthy — visits to the hospital.
The latest was in May, when he arrived with his wife, Nancy, at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. It was only at 4 a.m. after a series of tests that he was told he would need to be admitted to the hospital, and it wasn’t until early Thursday afternoon — nearly 48 hours after his arrival — that he finally landed in an in-patient bed.
What was worse, he said, was watching other patients — many of them elderly — waiting to be moved from gurney to hospital bed and full treatment. He even tried to offer his cot to someone whose condition, he felt, might have been more serious, but was discouraged by nurses.
The hospital says delays in emergency are decreasing, and data released Wednesday by the Canadian Institute for Health Information show that the average wait for a bed for an emergency patient admitted to The Ottawa Hospital is slightly below the provincial average.
But to the Parkers, the delays and frustration they have witnessed look like real-life effects of the provincial government’s continued cuts to Ontario hospitals’ operating budgets.
“The wait time to get a bed blows me away, flabbergasts me, to be stuck in emergency that long,” Lee Parker said. “Paramedics were lining up and patients were still on their gurneys, and they didn’t have any other beds to put them in. They were just waiting. It was unbelievable.”
Nancy Parker, 56, said the experience with her husband prompted her to begin campaigning on behalf of the Ontario Health Coalition, a provincial network of health-care activists. She said she’ll join the group when it protests outside MPP Bob Chiarelli’s office in Ottawa on Friday at noon.
“The overcrowding has really been an issue,” she said. “With the shortage of beds and staff, he ended up staying in the hospital longer.”
This year, The Ottawa Hospital has announced two rounds of cuts to eliminate 122 full-time jobs as part of a $26-million cost-saving effort to balance its budget. Since 2012, when the province introduced an overhaul to health-care funding, the hospital has had to reduce costs by $99 million.
Mike Tierney, the hospital’s vice-president of clinical programs, said that although emergency room wait times have seen “steady improvement” in the past few years, beds remain in short supply.
“We’re on the right track, but access to in-patient beds and emergency department wait times are still an issue, not just in Ottawa but across the province, across the country and in many parts of the world,” Tierney said, noting that emergency department wait times are “tightly linked” to hospital occupancy, which at The Ottawa Hospital normally reaches 100 per cent or more.
Hospitals in Ontario are the least funded and have the fewest beds per capita of all provinces in Canada, according to the health coalition.
“The cuts are just biting deeper and deeper every year, and at this point Ottawa is really the ground zero for the cuts across Ontario,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the advocacy group.
“Our hospitals cannot sustain any more cuts. In Ottawa, the evidence is very clear that the hospitals … need more beds and staff to relieve the crisis level of overcrowding they face.”
Mehra said coalition members are targeting Chiarelli on Friday because they see him as “the most susceptible to public pressure” among Ottawa MPPs, since he won by the narrowest margin in the 2014 election. The group has already held numerous protests to demand that Premier Kathleen Wynne stop the cuts.
Lee and Nancy Parker said the public doesn’t show a strong enough reaction to the hospital cuts, partly because it doesn’t have a direct effect on most people — until something goes wrong.
“It’s something I thought I’d never see, especially in Ontario and in Canada,” said Lee. “It’s just a shame that there’s not more public outcry.”