Hepburn: Time for McGuinty to fix health-care mess
September 16, 2010
By all accounts, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews is a smart, pleasant and politically savvy woman whose heart is in the right place.
For years, first in private life and now as a cabinet minister, she has fought hard on behalf of women, the poor and children.
And recently she has received much-deserved praise for her moves to lower prices for generic drugs.
But all this good work cannot hide the fact that Matthews has caused widespread chaos and misery by failing to stop the rapid deterioration in one of the main pillars of Ontario’s overall health-care strategy.
Indeed, on her watch, critical parts of Ontario’s health-care program are in shambles, with funding slashed and angry, often frail patients left to fend for themselves without services or having to pay out of their own pockets for needed help.
At the same time, Matthews is being criticized for fostering “a culture of fear” within the health-care sector, for refusing to meet with many professional health-care groups, and of running a “closed and defensive” ministerial office.
Her troubles stem from the failure by Queen’s Park to adequately fund outpatient and at-home health services.
That’s important because the McGuinty government is pressuring hospitals to reduce costs. To do that, hospital administrators are slashing the number of beds and pushing patients out the door faster than ever, turning them over to community health authorities.
However, cash-strapped Community Care Access Centres, which arrange for support from local health-care professionals, have simultaneously cut funds for all but the most severe cases.
These cuts — more than 50 per cent in some areas — have been made suddenly and without consultation.
The dramatic reductions started to show up last fall and have continued to this day. Hardly a day goes by without more layoffs and more reduced workloads for health-care professionals.
The result is that patients who need critical services provided by occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, dietitians and other professionals are forced to go on wait lists that can last for years or receive no help at all.
Incredibly, though, there’s no sense of urgency from Matthews, no feeling that she even realizes a problem exists.
Here’s what she said in a speech in April to the Canadian Club in Toronto: “Whoever needs care, will get care. Period. Full stop.”
And this is what she said earlier this year: “When we see hospitals close beds, that’s actually in and of itself not a bad news story because so much more is being provided in the community.”
Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition, which represents 400 grassroots organizations from across the province, is sharply critical of Matthews, saying there is “no alignment of hospital planning and community care planning.”
Examples abound across Ontario.
In the Windsor area, adult rehabilitation therapy through home care was cut earlier this year by up to 70 per cent.
In Cobourg, the Northumberland Hills Hospital closed outpatient physiotherapy and occupational therapy services.
In each instance, concerned residents have held community meetings, started petitions and staged demonstrations.
Matthews has ignored them all.
Mehra is one of the few health-care advocates to speak publicly about their frustrations in dealing with Matthews or health ministry officials.
Many others spoke to me only if their names would not be used. They were afraid of being “blackballed,” as one person said, by Matthews and her Queen’s Park staff. Some of them have tried unsuccessfully to meet with Matthews since she was appointed health minister last October.
To fix this mess, it’s time Premier Dalton McGuinty stepped in and ordered Matthews to conduct a full probe into the depth and impact of the community care cutbacks.
He should also demand CCAC officials explain fully why they are slashing vital services without telling or consulting the public.
And while he’s at it, McGuinty should meet personally with health-care groups ignored to date by Matthews.
It wouldn’t be much, but it would be a welcome start.
Bob Hepburn's column appears Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ontario Health Coalition
15 Gervais Drive, Suite 305
Toronto, ON M3C 1Y8