Action promised on community care mess

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Thu Oct 07 2010.  By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

Deb Matthews may quickly emerge as the biggest champion in Ontario for people who need outpatient or at-home health services and either can’t get them or are forced to wait months — and sometimes years — for help.

“If there’s a problem, I want to know about it. I want to fix it,” the Ontario health minister says.

Matthews made the statement after reading media reports about how widespread funding cuts by local health authorities have left thousands of patients receiving fewer and fewer visits from trained health professionals in their community or home — or going without services at all.

In a lengthy interview at Queen’s Park, Matthews said she is determined to find out why senior health officials insist more and more people are receiving treatment at home, yet health professionals working on the ground report the exact opposite.

“I am asking for more details on those issues” from the health ministry and Community Care Access Centres (CCAC), the government agencies that arrange for support from local health-care professionals, she said.

“I need better information. I want to go deeper into the numbers.”

And Matthews, who insisted she is “very focused” on improving home care, said she will “reach out” to health-care workers, many of whom have been laid off or seen their workloads drastically cut. She wants them to contact her directly about these problems.

The problem occurs because cash-strapped local health authorities are shifting more of their focus to hospitals. The result is community care, which is supposed to be a priority for the McGuinty government, is a mess.

Matthews’ pledge to dig into this issue is an encouraging sign.

For months, health-care professionals who actually work with patients, seeing them in their homes or as outpatients, have been voicing concerns about huge funding cuts.

However, bureaucrats in the health ministry and at CCACs insist their “statistics” show more are receiving care than ever and that wait lists are declining.

What the bureaucrats should do, though, is stop looking at their financial spreadsheets and start talking to real workers in the field.

What they hear will surprise them.

For example, Sue Williams, an occupational therapist in Guelph with 30 years experience, will tell them how her workload has been cut in half in the past year.

Other health professionals, such as speech-language pathologists, physiotherapists and nurses, will talk about losing their jobs, about the virtual end of patient referrals from CCACs and about how some CCACs allegedly threaten any private contracting agencies that dare to speak up.

In some cases, the numbers are shocking.

Visits to patients by speech-language pathologists fell 40 per cent between 2008 and 2009, the last year statistics are available. That’s almost 200,000 fewer visits in one year.

Home visits by occupational therapists fell 24 per cent over the same period. Visits by physiotherapists were down 9 per cent. Visits by dieticians declined 2 per cent.

The declines continue to this day.

At the same time, wait lists for many services, for both children and adults, are growing. Some are now more than two years long.

Matthews’ decision to demand answers from health authorities is a bit overdue.

But the health minister deserves full praise for vowing to find out why thousands of patients who need help with everything from swallowing to walking are being so poorly served.

It was time someone in power looked into their plight.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/871775–hepburn-action-promised-on-community-care-mess >

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