PERTH - Randy Hillier came face to face with protesters fighting bed closures at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital this week in a sometimes testy exchange.
The Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington MPP met with about 75 protesters assembled in front of his Perth constituency office on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and he wasted no time in confronting what he called “distortion of the facts,” about bed closures and redundancies at the hospital.
“I am very disturbed by what has happened,” said Hillier. “That people would distort the facts. I do believe, wholeheartedly, completely, that there has been a complete misrepresentation about what is happening at the hospital. There have been no cuts to the hospital.”
David Lundy, the regional vice president (region four) of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, took the opportunity to poke fun at Hillier.
“You should be wearing a red coat there buddy,” said Lundy, referring to the red preferred by Liberals. “I never thought I’d see you defending the Liberals.”
Hillier replied that he was not defending the outgoing McGuinty government, stating that it was a local decision made by the hospital board.
“I’m going to respect the local decisions,” said Hillier. “There are some changes that have been happening. I agree with them. Those decisions that they have made are to make us a better hospital. Those changes are to reflect the changing demographics of our community.”
The protesters invited Hillier to a Feb. 4 planning meeting about the future of the hospital so that he could clear up any misconceptions on the spot.
“I would be happy to advocate for improvements,” to the hospital, Hillier said. “That is my bottom line, if we have an honest dialogue, as long as we are having an honest discussion then I will be there.”
However, some organizers, including members of the hospital unions, took exception to Hillier accusing them of spreading “lies.”
While the hospital is facing a $4 million deficit, about six beds each are due to be closed at each hospital location this March, but Hillier stressed about 30 per cent of the hospital’s beds were being taken up by long-term care patients awaiting home care or placement in a nursing home.
“(The 12 beds) are no longer needed here,” said Hillier. “Those people are now being looked at at home.”
He also pointed to the $20 million top up for home care allocated to the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN).
“We need to put more money into homecare,” said Hillier. “If those people can stay in their homes with some level of assistance, this is best. I am acknowledging that we need to put more money into long-term care and home care,” though he did acknowledge that home care was not as visible as, say, a hospital. He shared that his own mother needed dialysis which required home care help.
Hillier did concede that one position has been cut from the physio-therapy department, but was adamant that the sexual assault unit “was still there,” but that the role of community educator within that unit, “that role has been taken up by the community,” and out of the hospital’s hands. There was one person (at the unit) and it was changed to a community person.”
Hillier was also challenged as to whether the night nurse shift being reduced from three nurses on duty at the Perth campus to two was a cut.
“It’s not a financial cut,” replied Hillier. “There has been a loss of one job,” in the physio-therapy department.
One nurse in attendance, with 17 ½ years experience, told Hillier that she was facing a $5 an hour cut in pay at the hospital.
“There are lots of jobs for nurses in the province,” Hillier replied. “Maybe they are hiring more nurses in home care than in hospitals.”
Hillier also promised the protesters that his door was always open to them if they wished to talk about their own personal problems accessing health care.
“If you have to wait nine to 10 months for any thing in health care, call me,” said Hillier. “That’s what I am here for.”
(One union president joked that he did not want to be calling Randy every day with concerns.)
Hillier did receive some applause from the audience when he revealed that he had travelled back from Toronto, where Queen’s Park is abuzz with the arrival of new Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne, just to meet with the protesters, but the mood turned harsh quickly when Hillier said he was in favour of private clinics competing with public health care.
“I do believe we need some additional clinics, like the Shouldice Hospital,” said Hillier of the for-profit hernia hospital in Markham, Ont. “We need to give people a greater choice of options,” in healthcare. He referred to Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, whom he described as certainly “not blue,” Tory like him, and Simpson’s new book Chronic Crisis, as backing him up on this.
“There are big problems in health care,” said Hillier. “I support publicly funded health care. But we need some more options. We need greater choices of where we can find care.”
Before the start of the demonstration, organized by the SOS Health Coalition of Perth and Smiths Falls, many organizers took Hillier to task.
“Randy would like to tell you that he represents small communities,” said Chris Cormier, who sits on the executive board of OPSEU. “We need those services saved, and maybe add some things. We don’t want to drive hundreds of kilometers for services our parents got (years ago).”