Deborah Knuff was shocked recently by conditions that required her mother, 95, to share a bathroom at Health Sciences North with others put up in a makeshift room lacking facilities.
“It’s not just a matter of inconvenience,” she said, during a town hall Monday hosted by the Ontario Health Coalition and attended by about 80 concerned members of the public. “It’s a matter of severe, serious, life-threatening changes at our hospital.”
Knuff said she has nothing but praise for the staff who strove to care for her aging mom under trying circumstances, but worries patients will get sicker do to cramped quarters and poor hygiene.
“The general public doesn’t understand the real impact of having four people in a TV room,” she said. “Those people are assigned other people’s rooms to use the washroom, so you have situations where the person whose room it is waits outside. They’re all sick, and messes are made, because housekeeping has been cut.”
She said she was “astounded” when a mess was left on the floor and no-one cleaned it up immediately, because housekeeping staff were too few and busy elsewhere. “This is in a hospital,” she said. “Had I not been there, I wouldn’t have understood that.”
Knuff said her mother was sharing a room with other fragile patients, including a woman with cancer. “These are compromised people, and they can’t even have a clean room?” she said. “The first step I think is to really share the stories, and make it really clear that if your mom goes into the hospital, or you go into the hospital, there’s a pretty good chance you will get sicker.”
Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said HSN is often running 10 per cent beyond capacity, which means “every bed is full pretty much every minute of the day, and people are routinely lying on stretchers in hallways, waiting for days and sometimes weeks here to get into a proper hospital bed and get care.”
The crowding also leads to surgeries being cancelled and an ER so jam-packed that “ambulances can’t offload, because the emergency department can’t send patients into the wards.”
Meanwhile, patients are being “pushed out ever more quickly, ever sicker, even though there aren’t enough long-term care beds in the community or the region,” she said. “All the way through the system, you end up with a crisis.”
The crunch is not unique to HSN, but Mehra said the situation locally is more severe than elsewhere in the province.
“Ontario has now the fewest hospital beds left of any province in Canada and is at the bottom of the country in terms of the amount of nursing care per patient,” said the OHC leader. “And if you look at Sudbury, its hospital is funded at a lower rate than the rest of Ontario and you have fewer beds left. So it’s a serious situation.”
Dot Klein, who heads up the Sudbury Health Coalition, noted she began her career as a registered nurse in 1963, “when John F. Kennedy and Jackie were in the White House, and (Nelson) Mandela had not even gone to jail yet.”
She said she has seen a lot of changes over her time in health care — including the disappearance of the Victorian Order of Nurses — but “I have never, ever seen the level of care we have here now. I’m talking about all of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and now we’re 2018 and it’s getting worse. What has happened?”
What happened, according to Mehra, is the Harris government of the 1990s “cut massively” by providing tax breaks to the wealthy and slashed $800 million to health care over a few years. The McGuinty government brought in a health tax for the wealthiest people and increased hospital funding for three years, but this was followed by a round of corporate tax cuts.
“Under Harris we lost $15 billion a year for all our public services, including health care,” she said. “And then under McGuinty we lost another $6 billion per year, so in total we’re at minus $21 billion from tax cuts primarily for the wealthy and corporations.”
Health Sciences North is slashing 150 full-time equivalent positions across various departments to deal with a sizeable deficit, she said, but the real problem isn’t so much mismanagement on the hospital’s part as simply not enough funding from Queen’s Park.
“The provincial government sets the level of funding for all the province’s hospitals,” said Mehra. “Compared to the national average, we are 122 beds short in Sudbury. So we’re far behind already in the amount of services available.”
Premier Doug Ford campaigned on ending hallway medicine, she noted, but with flu season approaching, “all they have announced so far for Sudbury is eight temporary beds for five months. So far, far less than what you need just to get out of crisis and way below the national average.”
She said HSN, like other hospitals, should be held to account for “exorbitant salaries” for executives, but “the political target is the provincial government.”
While the province may argue there simply isn’t enough money to go around, the health coalition head said the funding can be found if the will exists to provide it.
“These are political choices,” said Mehra. “Every other province does better than we do, so we can succeed in getting this.”
Sharon Richer, a Sudbury native and secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said pressure must be placed on Queen’s Park to loosen its purse strings and hold the premier to his word.
“Although Premier Ford said there would not be any layoffs, things are turning out very differently for Health Sciences North,” she said. “They are running a deficit of $11 million and things are getting a whole lot worse for staff and patients.”
Bed occupancy should not exceed 80-85 per cent, yet HSN “has operated well beyond these means for the last two years,” she said.
That not only increases emergency room delays but also “drives up superbug infections like C. difficile,” said Richer. “Our hospital is in crisis. We know people are waiting on stretchers in the emergency department and patients are being cared for in bathrooms, storage areas and stretchers in hallways.”
Richer called on those present for the town hall to “get involved. We need you to talk to your family, your friends. We need to send a strong message to this government and press very hard for the province to fund Health Sciences North appropriately.”