Health support for school kids is a mess
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Jan 26 2011. By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page
For years, thousands of frustrated Ontario parents have complained about their children being forced to wait months, sometimes years, to receive health services delivered in schools.
They pleaded loudly that the program, meant to provide critical health services for students, is grossly underfunded, confusing and delivered unevenly across the province, and in some cases even between schools in the same neighbourhood.
Too often, local and provincial authorities dismissed their complaints as misinformed and out of step with the facts.
Now, however, a sweeping new report prepared for the Ontario government has backed up what parents have been saying for years, namely that the School Health Support Services program is a mess.
The 88-page report, which is being made public today, identified major problems throughout the program, including growing wait lists, declines in funding and conflicting interpretations of the program’s mandate.
Combined, the lengthy list of problems result in a “fragmented and confusing service delivery for the child and family,” says the report, prepared by the consulting firm Deloitte.
Some findings surprise even Health Minister Deb Matthews, who said in an interview that parts of the report “don’t sit well with me” and promised action on the 15 major recommendations.
The report is significant because it supports the argument that young students who need critical health services often must either endure long waits for service or don’t receive it at all. What’s worse is that both the waiting lists and the wait times have been rising in recent years.
The problem is most acute for students who need therapy services. Some students must wait up to 650 days for physiotherapy and 500 days to see a speech-language pathologist. The number of students waiting to see a speech-language pathologist was 9 per cent higher in the 2009-10 fiscal year than it was two years earlier.
It’s a problem that patients across Ontario have also experienced in seeking either community health care or home care.
The Deloitte review, which took a year to conduct, examined how schools deliver health services, such as nursing, physiotherapy, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy and dietetics. All the services are mandated by the government.
The School Health Support Services program was launched in 1984 with the intent of ensuring no student in Ontario would be denied access to education because of special needs during school hours.
Since its creation, successive governments have heard a litany of complaints about the program’s funding levels and its ability to handle increasing demand for services.
Critically, the review did not address the issue of funding for the program or whether it was sustainable in its current form.
Matthews says those decisions were deliberate. “What we need to do first is take a good look at what we are already doing and find out if we are getting the best value for the money we are spending now,” she says. “Only then will we be able to make decisions about the adequacy of funding.”
Matthews admits wait times are a huge issue. “We need to see that services are being delivered in a timely manner, that we don’t have gaps in care and that we are using the resources we have now in a way that we get the best value and the best results,” she says.
The report also said the total number of students being serviced under the program declined in the latest period, as did the amount of money for the program.
The report made 15 recommendations, including proposals to clarify the scope of services delivered, improve coordination among health agencies, and increase service planning and accountability.
Over the next 60 days, the public can comment on the report, which is on the health ministry’s website. After that, the government will decide how and when to move ahead on the recommendations.
“We can do better and people are telling us we can do better,” Matthews says, adding she is looking forward to hearing from parents.
For some parents, the report likely will seem too heavily focused on bureaucratic processes and not enough on getting quick access to services for their child.
But it lays the groundwork needed for Queen’s Park, with Matthews’ leadership, to make dramatic improvements in how we get medical care for kids who need it.
For anyone with kids in school, this is a report worth reading.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/928764–hepburn-health-support-for-school-kids-is-a-mess >