Province must stop downloading hospital costs to municipalities

First published: February 13, 2007

As Hamilton Township continues its deliberation over whether it will give $200,000 towards a new CT scanner for Northumberland Hills Hospital, it is time to consider just how much the Ontario government is downloading health costs on to the backs of local taxpayers.

Before making this argument, it is vital that there is no misunderstanding. Northumberland Hills Hospital needs (and deserves) everyone’s support. Without it, we would all suffer. The 80,000 people, who are served by this hospital, benefit from the generosity of those who donate. And, we should all be grateful to the individuals and organizations that volunteer incredible amounts of time to put together fabulous events to assist in raising money.

This is about policy. It is also about invisible taxes and shifting responsibility on to the shoulders of those who can least afford it: municipalities. And, with a provincial election on the horizon, there is no better time to deliver a strong message to those wishing to represent us over the next four years.

Two stories drive home this point: the fundraising drive for the new MRI machine and CT scanner, as well as the efforts of the Community Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee.

Recently, Northumberland Hills Hospital Foundation chairman Bob MacCoubrey visited all municipal councils within the catchment area seeking substantial donations. He hopes to raise about $1 million ($300,000 each from Cobourg and Port Hope, $200,000 from Hamilton Township and $100,000 each from Cramahe and Alnwick/Haldimand townships). The hope is to raise enough for a $1 million CT scanner. This is at the same time the foundation is looking to raise money for a new $2.5 million MRI machine. This is all part of a five-year plan to raise $11 million to replace existing hospital equipment.

And, while the Ontario Ministry of Health does not normally cover the cost of replacing equipment, MacCoubrey told one council: “The ministry wants it (the equipment) up and running a.s.a.p.”

Of all the nerve! If it isn’t bad enough we pay federal and provincial taxes with a large portion spent on health care, now local taxpayers get to pay a third time at the municipal level. And, then the province wants to dictate the timelines. Does anyone remember when this was debated on the campaign trail or public consultations were held? Surely, there would be one municipal politician who would have stood up to this injustice. Maybe not.

We are not alone. Campbellford is approaching its five municipalities to get up to $1 million each to meet its needs. Millbrook and North Monaghan gave $1 million each for Peterborough’s new hospital. Then, there is Kirkland Lake and District Hospital trying too raise $325,000 to renovate 30 patient rooms. Kingston area hospitals just raised $4 million for patient-care facilities and equipment. Peterborough Regional Health Centre’s foundation is raising $10 million to upgrade and replace equipment for its new $218 million hospital. The list goes on.

But, it gets worse. The Community Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee, who is charged with attracting and keeping doctors in our community, is also going before councils looking for money to fund its efforts. With five vacancies, it is scrambling to bring doctors to the area. At least 6,500 people in West Northumberland are without a doctor right now.

This is not an easy task for the committee. Dr. Michael Armstrong went to Haliburton, where a new medical facility has just opened. The community is paying for the cost of the building and some of the operating expenses. It also helped with moving costs. This only goes to show how competitive municipalities are becoming to get doctors to come.

Sadly, none of this is new. When the 137-bed Northumberland Hills Hospital opened its doors in October 2003, area residents, businesses, service clubs and municipalities donated $24 million toward the $75 million cost. Residents also gave $2.2 million for a new CT scanner when the hospital opened.

There is no question about the value of a new MRI. People must now travel to Kingston, Toronto and Buffalo to get this service. And, the overall amount the foundation wants to raise is not unreasonable. When you think of the $10 million cost to replace all the equipment, it really boils down to about $125 per person living within the area served by the hospital.

The Ontario government planned to spend $35.4 billion on health care last year. That amount is expected to rise to $37.3 billion this year. It represents about one-quarter of the entire provincial budget. Despite that staggering sum, it is not enough. But, the solution is not to download the expense on to municipalities. Provincial and federal governments have a myriad of ways to raise revenue, far more than municipalities, who can only do it through property tax.

Municipalities can barely hang on under the current load. To make them pay for equipment and recruitment is poor policy. Every hospital should be treated equally and fairly. Health care in Canada is meant to be a universal system where everyone gets the same level of care. It is not right that hospitals that are fortunate enough to raise more money get better facilities or can attract doctors. It creates a multi-tiered system that undermines the Canada Health Act.

It is time to let politicians and candidates know health care is a provincial, not a municipal expense. It should not be up to Hamilton Township council to find $200,000 in its budget to help with the cost of new equipment. (Although the reality of the situation cannot be changed and so they should pay.). Nor should municipal politicians be deciding what incentives they should be giving doctors to get them to come here. It turns the doctor shortage into a version of “Let’s Make a Deal”. It humiliating for municipalities and its demeaning to doctors.

Local taxpayers are already on the hook for enough downloaded services. It is time for a shift in the other direction. But, until that happens, we cannot let our hospital down.

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