Hot! McGuinty must help those who feel ‘like garbage’ [speech pathology]

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Thu Jul 08 2010.   By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

Bob Jackman suffered a devastating stroke seven years ago and to this day still has extreme difficulty speaking and can no longer work.

Despite that, it’s been more than two years since Jackman, who is 64 and lives in Mississauga, last saw a trained therapist.

“I am totally disgusted,” says his wife, Mary, about the inability to receive treatment from a speech-language pathologist.

“Bob worked hard all of his life and contributed to his community and country in so many ways only to get shoved aside like a useless piece of garbage.”

Jackman is one of tens of thousands of Ontario residents, from youths to senior citizens, who are desperately seeking professional care because of severe trouble swallowing food or talking.

Because of huge wait lists, patients go years before seeing a speech-language pathologist or, in the case of Jackman and countless others, they may never see a specialist again unless they dig deep into their own pockets to pay for private care.

At the same time, speech-language pathologists, who work with patients to improve their ability to communicate or swallow, are being laid off or have seen their workloads drastically cut in the past year.

Stunningly, senior health officials insist they know nothing about such cuts or the lengthy wait lists.

Worse, the Ontario government seems to be ignoring the growing problem, almost as if hoping it will magically go away.

This is particularly true with Health Minister Deb Matthews, who has never met with the association that represents speech-language pathologists, despite repeated requests to do so. Her staff has also rebuffed several requests for an interview on this issue.

Since I first wrote about this problem several weeks ago, I have been swamped with emails and phone calls from both patients and speech-language pathologists detailing their personal experiences.

Elderly residents told of how it had been years since they received help. Angry parents in Toronto told of how their children must wait nearly three years to see a therapist.

“Canada is supposed to be ‘socially responsible’ for those in need, but we’ve really dropped the ball on this one,” says Anita Sinclair, an Uxbridge mother whose 14-year-old daughter, Emily, has received just 22 hours of therapy in the last 10 years.

Speech-language pathologists from Ottawa to London spoke of how they haven’t had a new patient referral for months.

Many spoke of a climate of fear. Staffers at agencies linking patients and speech-language pathologists are afraid to talk “on the record” about the cuts, worried they may lose their jobs or more work for their agencies if they go public with their concerns.

Individual therapists talk about being placed on “black lists.”

Margaret Mottershead, CEO of the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres, which are charged with coordinating health services throughout the province, admits budgets are tight, which means agencies must focus on the neediest patients. But she insisted the situation isn’t as dire as patients and therapists claim.

And William Manson, a senior director at the Local Health Integration Network that manages health services in Toronto, says there’s been no cut in service in the city, no change in the number of clients treated and no adult wait list.

A spokesman for Matthews says “patients with very high needs are being seen and that the LHINs and CCACs have coordinated plans to manage wait lists.” Matthews is awaiting a review of all school health support systems, to be completed by July 31. But only a tiny part of that review will touch on cases involving speech-language pathologists, and it won’t deal with problems faced by adult patients.

Conservative MPP Frank Klees (Newmarket-Aurora) is the only politician demanding action from Queen’s Park and health officials. He has held a town-hall meeting on the issue and initiated a petition signed by thousands of residents calling for the government to act.

Both the Liberals and the NDP have turned their backs on the issue.

So who will help Bob Jackman and so many others like him?

If Matthews won’t act on her own, Premier Dalton McGuinty should step in immediately and order her to launch a probe into these service cuts with the aim of restoring funding to acceptable levels.

Only then will Jackman and others receive the help they deserve.

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