SMITHS FALLS - Hospital unions appear headed for a confrontation with MPP Randy Hillier.
“What we hear from this MPP, Mr. Hillier, is that the cuts are justified, and that the hospital needs to live within its means,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) during a public meeting on the state of the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 95 in Smiths Falls on Tuesday, Jan. 15. (A similar meeting had been held the night before at the Perth Civitan Club hall.)
“It’s very, very rare to find an MPP who won’t fight to save his hospital,” charged
Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC).
The OCH and OCHU, and the two unions that represent workers at the local hospital, CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) and OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) will protest in front of the Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington MPP’s Perth constituency office at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
“(Leeds-Grenville MPP) Steve Clark has been very vocal about Brockville General Hospital,” said Hurley. “He helped with the funding for that. Mr. Hillier is just not being helpful. It would be great if Mr. Hillier could be persuaded to be helpful.”
Mehra, who is based in Toronto, like Hurley, agreed that she wants to see Hillier join in the fight to secure more money for the hospital.
“It would help if the local MPP would fight to help out,” said Mehra.
To add fuel to the fire, the unions have printed up an additional 5,000 protest postcards, which were delivered to the area this week, to compliment the 3,000 postcards handed out last year, to be delivered to Hillier’s office.
She added that the unions were not angry at the hospital board per se, since they essentially have their hands tied.
“The local hospital board is not allowed to run deficits,” said Mehra. “It’s against the law. They could be fired.”
Hurley explained the impetus behind the meeting, namely, the decision to close six hospital beds at both Perth and Smiths Falls sites.
“We are in the first of a five year funding freeze here in Ontario,” said Hurley. “That’s just cuts in the first year of a five year program of cuts…(and the) most significant hospital cuts are here in Perth, Smiths Falls and Lanark County. The viability of a two-site hospital here in this community will be very much in discussion.”
The OPSEU local has stated that the beds will be closed in March and that some employees have already been handed their walking papers.
Hurley admitted that hospital costs are rising faster than inflation, partially because of salaries, particularly doctor’s salaries, the cost of drugs and equipment. Hurley alleged that the hospital’s former CEO, Todd Stepanuik, “your most recent CEO here, got removed,” for going against cutbacks, and that both towns face a high rate of domestic violence incidents, one of the very same programs that is being cut.
“We don’t think you should accept it,” said Hurley. “We live in a wealthy province in a very healthy country.”
He charged that if the government would simply collect on $1.6 billion in uncollected corporate taxes, there would be no need for cutbacks, and that that money could easily eliminate the hospital’s $4 million shortfall.
“It’s not like this money cannot be found,” he alleged. “This province can afford to meet those needs.”
Hurley noted that both towns had a growing seniors’ population, and a growing poor population, and that the area was looking to at “actively recruiting seniors to live here,” he said.
For those seniors that do settle in the area, they did not do so with “the expectation that they would have to go to Ottawa or Kingston for their health care. They expect a viable hospital,” in there area.
The OHC, which co-sponsored the meeting, said that the decisions that were being made in Queen’s Park were impacting on the local hospital.
“The government has passed an austerity budget,” Mehra said. “And it means major cuts. It’s really happening below the radar,” at a rate of about $10 billion over three years.
“We keep hearing all kinds of rhetoric from the government about health care spending being out of control,” said Mehra. But she pointed out that 18,500 hospital beds have been cut since 1990, and while for “15 years governments have said ‘Oh, don’t worry, we are moving those beds into the community,’” like long-term care facilities and homecare, “those beds have not been replaced. There is no home care emergency department.” She also alleged the provincial Health Minister Deb Matthews is looking at introducing means testing to see who qualifies for home care.
In an interview with this newspaper last year, Hillier accused the unions of fear-mongering, and said that the two sites were not in danger of closing.
Mehra pointed out, however, that there were examples of a hospital losing so many services that, in time, it was eventually shut down, like the fate that befell the hospital in Shelburne, Ont., which lost numerous programs to nearby Orangeville.
“To say that that is not a reasonable thing to raise is not true,” said Mehra.
Her own suggestion for raising more money was to close a loophole in the employer health tax for partnerships like law and accounting firms.
Ted Traynor, who had journeyed up from Brockville for the meeting, encouraged young people to get involved in the fight.
“I was 20 years old once and in perfect health,” Traynor said with a laugh. “That ain’t it anymore. It doesn’t affect you now but think about the future. I don’t know how you are going to hit them (young people) with a stick to get them to pay attention, but we have to do it. You get a teenager who can sink his teeth into something, you’ve got an ally.”
Ian McIlroy of Perth also encouraged the assembled to consider the economic benefits of having a hospital in town.
“A hospital is an economic anchor for a community,” McIlroy said. For people looking to move into a community, “they are looking at schools and hospitals and a few other things. If you take the hospital out of either of these communities, you’ve just gutted them. It’s sounding the death knell.”