By Doug Draper
Niagara, Ontario’s regional council is giving the body responsible for operating a majority of the hospitals across the region until the end of August to respond to calls from local municipalities and a provincial coalition of citizens for an independent investigation into “serious complaints” and “unresolved issues” members of the public have expressed about the management of those hospitals.
During its July 15 meeting, the region’s council set the same deadline for a response from the province’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the provincially created Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) for Niagara and surrounding Ontario regions and municipalities. The decision to send resolutions by the Ontario Health Coalition and its Niagara Health Coalition chapter, along with similar resolutions approved by Town of Fort Erie and the cities of Port Colborne, Welland and Thorold, to the province for an independent investigation of the operation of hospital services in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Welland, Fort Erie and Port Colborne became the subject of heated debate.
There were some, including St. Catharines reps Judy Casselman and Bruce Timms, who insisted it is only fair to send the resolutions to Niagara Health System – that body responsible for operating the hospitals – for their comment before the regional government approves any kind of a resolution for a provincial investigation. Casselman argued that the region has no business having a say in how the NHS manages its affairs because the responsibility for managing hospital services ultimately falls on the region doesn’t have the jurisdiction to look after medical care for hospital or control of hospital budgets.
Welland regional councillor George Marshall told Casselman and others on the council that the regional government already has enough at stake to have some say in how the Niagara Health System is managing our hospitals. The region has agreed to invest $20 million of taxpayers money in facilities at the new hospital the NHS is building in west St. Catharines, Marshall said, and regional taxpayers are already taking a hit for more than a million dollars per year in extra ambulance services to get people from the south end of Niagara to emergency departments still open in Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.
“This problem isn’t going away,” said Marshall in his remarks. “And to say that it has nothing to do with the region, I think, is an error. The fact that we gave $20 million for the regional portion (of the west St. Catharines hospital complex now under construction by the NHS at a cost of more than $1.2 billion) speaks significantly to our involvement with the ratepayers (and) the fact that we are getting into transit, both the specialized and driving forces behind getting behind region-wide transit … is because of health care. ..,”
“We are losing hospitals in two of our neighbourhoods in Port Colborne and Fort Erie. What does that do to economic development? Does that have nothing to do with the region? It has plenty to do with the region. There is issue after issue after issue. …
“I am not here to give an answer tonight. But I am here to say that it is our business. It is affecting every man, woman and child in this community. Do you think that people want to move to Port Colborne and Fort Erie right now and happily say; ‘I’m going to bring 50 or 100 people … Oh, you don’t have a hospital. … I think we have a profound responsibility to look after each other as we have for 40 years. I don’t think we should stop now.”
Port Colborne regional councillor Bob Saracino questioned why the council would not simply endorse the resolution’s call for an investigation rather than send it to the NHS for a response first.
“We need an investigator,” said Saracino, arguing that it makes no sense to send the resolution to a body that released and began implementing a “hospital improvement plan” two years ago that is responsible for the closing of emergency departments in Port Colborne and Fort Erie, the closing of beds at hospital sites across the region, and other changes to services that are raising public concerns. “You are not going to get the answers to the issues we now face” from the NHS, Saracino said.
Port Colborne Mayor Vance Badawey urged regional councillors across the region to “stand shoulder to shoulder (and) speak as one voice” in pressing for proper hospital care services in Niagara. What the NHS is doing to hospital services in Niagara is impacting every community across the region, including St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland, with longer wait times in emergency rooms and other problems involving patient care, he said.
Badawey told councillors his municipality has been working with doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals to develop a new model for serving smaller and rural communities that have seen cuts to their hospitals, and has not received a response from the province to its efforts in more than two years. “All we are asking for is action from the (health) ministry,” said Badawey.
“All we are asking for is for you 30-some-odd people around this horseshoe to stand shoulder to shoulder with us so that work that needs to be done (to fix health care) will get done,” he said. The call for an investigation of NHS’s operations follows in the wake of 12 public hearings held in Niagara and other regions of the province earlier this year by a non-partisan panel of experts on health care established by the Toronto-based Ontario Health Coalition.
Among its key findings from the hearings, the panel stated that “Niagara has the poorest access to hospital beds and emergency department care in all the regions (it) visited in Ontario.” The coalition’s panel went on to charge that “cuts (in Niagara’s hospitals) were and are being implemented without adequate protections for resident access to care (and) that hospital care in Niagara is chaotic, perilously short-staffed and under-resourced.”
The NHS has taken issue with the coalition panel’s findings and has insisted that emergency wait times and other hospital services at what it calls its “centres of excellence” across the region are improving.
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