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President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE warns pre-budget hearing province’s health care in critical conditions

Posted: January 21, 2016

(January 21, 2016)

By: Jeff Ougler, Sault Star

SAULT STE. MARIE – A continued freeze to base operating funding for Ontario hospitals will yield a dire diagnoses for health care — particularly in Northern Ontario, contends the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE (OCHU).

Michael Hurley, one of a number of presenters to the provincial government’s pre-budget consultations in Sault Ste. Marie Thursday, said stakeholders presenting a united front in opposition to Liberal health-care policy is crucial if this four-year freeze is to end any time soon.

“There has been an increase in community unhappiness expressed in various forms over some of the cutbacks that have taken place,” Hurley told The Sault Star in an interview Thursday afternoon following his presentation.

“It’s only by working together that we’ll be able to affect a change here.”

Hurley, predicting “deeper cuts”, cited a list of recent reductions at regional health-care facilities he brands as tangible fallout from funding freezes, including 70 full-time staff eliminated at Sault Area Hospital, dozens of beds and 300 full-time staff at North Bay Regional Hospital eliminated in the last three years, 18 beds closed and 38 full-time positions eliminated at Timmins and District Hospital and 40 staff and several programs slashed at Health Sciences North, in Sudbury.

At SAH, specifically, departments across the hospital have been cut, including operating rooms, ICU, oncology, surgery, hemodialysis, infection control, patient care co-ordination, nursing and personal support. More than 59,000 hours/year of nursing and direct patient care have been cut and in 2015, 56 beds were slated for closure.

Deficiencies in health care often become most “starkly apparent” when individuals encounter roadblocks seeking care for senior relatives, Hurley said.

“It’s when they’re first trying to get them into the hospital, keep them (there) despite all the pressures to get them discharged when they might still be too sick and, then, get them adequate care in home to the extent that’s available,” Hurley said.

Northern Ontario faces a host of challenges due to a senior population well above the provincial average, poorer health outcomes and higher rates of poverty and chronic diseases, than that of southern Ontario, Hurley said, adding rural residents, especially, should not be penalized.

“The North’s special geographic issues, its geography, its sparse population, are supposed to be taken into account in (health-care) planning,” Hurley said.

A noon rally outside Delta Sault Ste. Marie Waterfront Hotel, where consultations were held, saw a number of protesters, including area union leaders, politicians and stakeholders, decry provincial health-care policy.

“Today, people from across Northern Ontario were loud and clear … This Liberal government has lost sight of what really matters to families,” said Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha, the NDP’s critic for Northern Development and Mines.

Ontario NDP Finance and Treasury Board critic Catherine Fife said Premier Kathleen Wynne must put a stop to cuts to health care and education, “put the brakes on the fire sale” of Hydro One and “invest” in the creation of “good family-supporting” jobs.

Meanwhile, Sault Ste. Marie MPP David Orazietti says his government has been a strong health-care advocate, as witnessed close to home with Sault Area Hospital’s budget, since the early 2000s, increasing or remaining “stable” and “consistent.”

“Under our government, since 2003, provincial funding for health care has increased in each year, despite some years of fiscal challenges,” Orazietti told the Sault Star Thursday, adding Ontario employs more doctors and nurses now than in 2003 when the Liberals took power in Ontario after defeating the Progressive Conservatives.

Hurley said he was pleased to see the Ontario Hospital Association speak out this week on the province capping hospital parking rates for three years “after a long time of being fairly quiet to say that the hospitals can’t sustain another year of these zero per cent (increases to base operating funding).”

The association said the “decision to cut revenues could not come at worse time.”

Revenue from parking fees is used for patient care, the purchase of capital equipment, infrastructure, clinical research and day-to-day operations, such as facility maintenance.

“While (the cap) is good news for visitors, it’s bad news for patients because hospitals rely on that revenue,” Hurley said. “The parking should probably be free for patients and visitors, but there has to be an approach to the funding that makes sense.”

SAH branded the funding freeze as a chief factor in its fall decision to hike visitor parking rates. Effective Dec. 30, the gate rate increased to $6 per visit and monthly parking passes are now $66.67. Daily rates were $5 and monthly rates stood at $40. Parking fees also increased for staff and physicians.

The all-party, pre-budget consultation committee also makes stops in Hamilton, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Windsor.

Hurley said he hopes his arguments — and those of others — to the committee will yield changes to health-care funding and delivery.

“I’m not sure how it was received,” he said. “Will the things we asked for be incorporated into the provincial budget, I’m not so confident at about that.”

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