Can the PCs ‘End Hallway Medicine’ and Balance the Budget?

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Sault Ste. Marie’s hospital and patients will not escape the impact of cutbacks resulting from the combination of 4 per cent spending cuts, $7 billion in tax cuts and a drive for a balanced budget – all promised by Ontario’s PCs led by Premier Doug Ford, warns the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE).

During this spring’s election campaign, Ford promised to end “hallway medicine.” Many Ontario patients are forced to spend days on gurneys in hallways or are sent home while acutely ill, victims of a decade of real hospital funding cuts and of the 18,000 beds eliminated over the last 20 years.

Despite this, Ford’s goal to gain control over the province’s $348 billion debt may come at the cost of quality care.

Factor in restructuring and privatization, and even larger cuts loom, according to a new report, Hallway Medicine: It Can Be Fixed, which was released in Sault Ste. Marie earlier today.

OCHU, the hospital division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU/CUPE), has crunched the numbers on three key Ford promises and forecasts their impact on many community hospitals across the province including the Sault Area Hospital (SAH) and the North Shore Health Network (NSHN).

OCHU/CUPE President Michael Hurley presented the study in the Sault this morning as part of his tour of Northern Ontario. In this phase, the organization will meet with 18 communities, and another 15 or so in the next phase.

“Until 2006, when former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty came in, Ontario’s funding was on par with the rest of Canada. But they started with the cuts and now there is a gap of almost $500 between the cost of an average 2-day stay in a hospital in Ontario ($5,360) versus the rest of Canada ($5990) We spend the least on hospitals, and we have the fewest beds in North America. In fact, no developed country has fewer beds than we do,” Hurley told SaultOnline.

The average stay for an individual at SAH specifically is $5,360. Not to mention, last year, SAH’s acute care bed occupancy was at 107 per cent, resulting in overcrowded rooms and backed-up health services.

Hurley warned of the dangers of these occupancy levels, “Everyone’s attention is watered down, amount of time spent with you goes down, and quality of care deteriorates. People (healthcare professionals) are making decisions really quickly and they are not always correct.”

The statistics back up Hurley’s statement, as the readmission rate at our hospital is 9.2 per cent. “They are coming back because they are not getting fixed. It’s a cruel feature of the healthcare system,” Hurley explained.

The problem has and will continue to most prominently impact the elderly in our community and across northern Ontario, as last year alone almost 27,000 people in the province were on wait lists for long-term care in the province.

“Between now and 2041, the already large population of senior citizens is going to double, and the population of seniors over 90 is going to quadruple. The bed capacity is inadequate to need, long-term access is restricted to the sickest patients, acuity of patients is going up, and it is harder than ever to get home healthcare services,” Hurley stated.

He believes that it comes down to a moral question. Is the government going to cater to those needs or not?

The CUPE research report makes several recommendations for ending hallway medicine. It also shows that, far from ending hospital overcrowding, Ford’s tax cuts and public service cost-cutting plans, when combined with his deficit elimination promise, will mean substantial funding cuts for hospitals.

“If we apply those cuts as suggested, we are going to lose $13 billion by the end of the PC government’s three-year mandate. Here (the Sault) it would mean the loss of 17-28 permanent and seasonal beds and increase in occupancy to 11%, as well as 72-156 staff cuts.”

The recommendations put forth by the study argue for the Ford government to fund the hospital by raising corporate taxes again in Ontario. “We have the lowest corporate taxes in North America. We could raise them, not to wait they were, but raise them, and have some revenue to put toward healthcare.”

Additionally, they support the Auditor General’s call for 33,000 additional long-term care beds.

The report also discouraged the government from restructuring or privatizing the system, calling this “wasteful spending.”

“We can end hallway medicine by making investments to meet the needs of an aging and growing population. These additional investments are not permanent, but they are needed for the life of the baby boom generation. Sault Ste. Marie’s hospital, already dealing with overcapacity and years of underfunding, will not be able to maintain the quality of patient care in the face of demographic pressures,” Hurley stated.

Moving forward, the OCHU/CUPE is hoping to meet with provincial Health Minister Christine Elliot to have a thoughtful and proactive discussion about what is causing hallway medicine.

When asked how the newly elected government has responded to OCHU/CUPE, Hurley said “The government isn’t responsive, but the last government wasn’t either. I don’t really read into that because it’s not a unique situation.”

While the statistics are concerning in the province, the situation is particularly critical in Northern Ontario. Hurley told SaultOnline “Your (the Sault’s) occupancy rates are very high. Yours and Sudbury’s are very high. I would say that you are higher than many other communities. I would say you are being shortchanged, really.”

Some of the pressures that contribute to ‘hallway medicine’ in the NSHN is people in the north have much less access to a personal family physician, so they are more reliant on hospitals. Moreover, large Indigenous populations living in less than ideal conditions without access to clean water and healthcare result in further health problems. Not to mention, the north has a high rate of poverty, addiction, diabetes, and some cancers. All of these factors, Hurley claims, result in more reliance on public health institutions.

Hurley said some economists have projected the Ford government will face  a $13 billion deficit by the third year of his mandate. This would mean a cut to government funded programs of 8 per cent in order to balance the budget.