Out of nowhere suddenly health care is on everyone’s lips.
The community response to changes to Northumberland Hills Hospital has evoked some of the strongest reaction in recent memory on any topic. In fact, the last time there was this powerful a grassroots movement was the fight to stop the closing of Port Hope Hospital.
But, we are not alone. In the United States, the first major health care reform in 40 years has led to the most vitriolic, partisan, divisive debate between American citizen, not just Democrats and Republicans. Some say this signals the deep dysfunctional nature of their political system, while others claim it is a major victory for change, including President Barack Obama.
Changing health care brings out powerful emotions.
Health care will be a focus for the new budget expected to be delivered by Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan Thursday (March 25). With a $24.7 billion deficit and unsustainable growth in health care funding, the province has signaled radical reforms are on the way. Insiders predict hospitals will get a two per cent increase on base funding.
Already Ontario has lost 56 per cent of the number of hospital beds per capita since 1990. The Ontario Hospital Association has not calculated recent cuts. Still, Toronto East General Hospital cut its physiotherapy clinic pain, audiology and cardiac rehabilitation clinics. Hamilton Health Sciences Centre will perform 1,200 fewer surgeries next year and cut 140 jobs, along with closing 50 beds. And, these are only a few examples.
All this does not include the “ALC problem, referring to alternative levels of care, required by 5,000 patients in Ontario, mostly frail, elderly people who are in hospitals even though they don’t need to be. These are the people who need long-term care or assisted living environments.
Northumberland is embroiled in its own set of cutbacks. Here 26 beds will be cut, 30-full-time jobs, removal of fast track and cuts diabetes clinic and outpatient rehabilitation services. The lost beds will mean the closure of complex care and alternative level of care.
This plan focuses the hospital on acute care services. But what is really going on here is the creation of a two-tier healthcare system in Northumberland.
By gutting these services, they will no longer be covered by OHIP, the provinces health insurance plan. These patients better have lots of money or a really good health insurance plan at work to cover the costs of rehab or other services For those who don’t, it will be tough luck.
Sadly, it will be low-income seniors who will suffer most, especially when it comes to the loss of ALC beds. The waiting list is very long at the Golden Plough Lodge, one of the few fully publicly funded institutions run by the county.
Since 1907, the community knew it was important to have a locally funded long-term care facility for seniors. (Originally, it was the House of Refuge and County Gaol run by the Cobourg Cottage Hospital Board, then it was turned over to the county in 1914). The only place for people to go will be private long-term senior homes. Not everyone can afford this.
There are two key principles that must guide local health care reform.
First, it is universally accessible services. These may or may not be provided by the hospital, but the services must be in place and ready to serve/treat patients before anything can happen at Northumberland Hills.
Second, it is affordability. Patients may have accessibility to physiotherapists or long-term care beds in private nursing homes, but if they cannot afford these services it means nothing.
All this brings it back to the starting point. The Ontario government cannot turn its back on Northumberland or any other community when it comes to health care. MPP Lou Rinaldi must deliver on an unprecedented level. It would appear his government is prepared to put a foot on the throat of this community by cutting important services, flying in the face of the principles of universal, affordable health care.
If Rinaldi and the Liberal cannot ensure proper levels of funding to sustain services, they may be out of office following the next election.