Hundreds rally for rural hospitals

TheStar.com – Ontario/Healthzone.ca – Hundreds rally for rural hospitals
April 30, 2009.   Theresa Boyle

In battles reminiscent of a decade ago, when Toronto was in the grips of an all-out war over hospital closings, small rural and northern hospitals across the province are facing serious cuts or outright closings, creating a furor among local residents.

Financially, it may make sense. But to small-town folk facing the prospect of travelling kilometres down the highway to the nearest hospital while suffering chest pains, it doesn’t seem fair.

In a show of force, about 1,000 protesters from more than 15 small towns took over the front lawn of Queen’s Park yesterday to protest cuts they contend are being forced by hospital deficits rather than any grand plan for health-care restructuring.

Barb Staroba, 46, said she knows first-hand that keeping Fort Erie’s Douglas Memorial Hospital open is the difference between life and death. She had a heart attack and was saved by the quick response of the staff there six years ago. Her survival chances would have been slim if she had been taken for treatment in St. Catharines, 40 minutes away, she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with becoming efficient, but when you are becoming efficient at the expense of small, rural and northern communities, that’s unacceptable,” said Russ Wilson, general manager of community health for the Town of Fort Erie and an organizer of the protest, said in an earlier interview.

“If you talk to any resident of a small community, they are going to tell you that the hospital is the backbone of their community. That’s where all their friends and neighbours work. That’s where their doctors take them from cradle to cane. These people fundraise for their hospitals, they build them, they equip them,” he adds.

“The `H’ is coming off our hospital. The longer people have to travel to get health care, the more likely it is that they are not going to make it,” Wilson warns.

Reaction to the changes is similar to that elicited in the late 1990s when the now-defunct Health Services Restructuring Commission spearheaded closings and mergers of about 40 hospitals, mostly in urban areas of the province.

Other communities facing the possibility of hospital cuts or closings include Port Colborne, Durham Region, Wallaceburg, Quinte, Leamington, Mount Forest, Strathroy, Petrolia and St Joseph Island near Sault Ste. Marie.

Betty Turner, 80, of Wallaceburg said at yesterday’s protest that eliminating the ER from her local hospital will be devastating for seniors who make up a majority of those in need of critical care. She said plans to move that service to Chatham would put a strain on the quality of care Chatham could offer to the 22,000 people who use the ER annually. “They can’t handle our volume,” she said.

Health Minister David Caplan announced Monday his government is making good on an election promise to establish a Rural and Northern Health Care Panel to provide recommendations on how to co-ordinate delivery of health services to northern and rural areas.

But Natalie Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition questions the wisdom of establishing the panel after cuts were already underway. “The cart is well ahead of the horse here. What’s clear is that health planning is a big mess now,” she says.

Grilled over the hospital changes during the Legislature’s daily question period, Caplan said it is in patients’ best interests to have better, bigger hospitals.

“I understand there will always be anxiety whenever there are any changes that are made, but all the changes … are for improved patient care,” he told reporters.

With files from Rob Ferguson

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