Ontario’s disgraceful cuts to speech therapy

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Thu May 06 2010.  By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

Imagine you can barely speak or swallow. Now imagine that you are told you must wait months and months before receiving any expert help.

That’s the scary reality right now for thousands of Ontario residents — from children to the elderly — in desperate need of professional care from a trained specialist.

They can’t get help because health authorities have drastically slashed funding for services by speech-language pathologists, some of whom have seen their patient load plunge by two-thirds in the last year.

Indeed, the entire system for providing services for residents with speech and language problems is in financial crisis, with agencies across the province cutting or drastically reducing staff and programs.

What’s worse is that no one is accepting responsibility.

Instead, they’re all blaming someone else for the mess.

“I’m angry and frustrated because I can’t get answers,” says Mary Cook, executive director of the Ontario Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (OSLA), adding that her members report that some services, notably those for children, are at the lowest levels in 10 years.

Speech-language pathologists, who must hold a master’s or doctoral degree, work with people to restore or improve their ability to communicate or swallow properly. There are about 2,500 regulated therapists currently working in the province.

Many of their patients are recovering from strokes and brain injuries suffered in accidents. Others are battling Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or other degenerative neurological disorders. Often they can’t talk or swallow, forcing them to be fed by tube.

Patients living at home or in long-term care facilities are referred to speech-language pathologists by case managers at Community Care Access Centres (CCAC) in Ontario. CCACs, which are funded by the health ministry, are responsible for coordinating health services in their area.

Over the last year, however, CCACs have cut the amount of referrals to speech-language pathologists. Instead, they are focusing their money on what they deem to be higher priority cases.

So acute is the problem that Newmarket-Aurora MPP Frank Klees is holding a public forum next Tuesday evening at the Aurora Cultural Centre to allow frustrated residents to voice their anger over wait lists.

Klees says the wait list for children in York Region has tripled in 12 months. Some therapists who treated 25 patients a week last year are now seeing only three to four a week. Despite this, Klees says, “there appears to be no plan” to deal with the backlog.

“These kids need help,” he states.

Similar cases of huge, growing wait lists are common across the Greater Toronto Area and around the province. One therapist in eastern Ontario who treats patients with acute brain injuries said patients on wait lists are being told to use their own money to hire therapists at rates up to $150 an hour.

For their part, officials at Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs), which are responsible for planning, funding and managing health services in their respective areas, say it’s up to CCACs to manage their wait lists.

Janet Szabo, chief executive officer at the Central CCAC that serves York Region, says her agency must work within its budget and must “prioritize our services to those with the highest health-care needs.” Szabo says she’s unaware of any drop in referrals, adding her agency exceeded the target number of visits for speech-language pathology in the last budget year.

At Queen’s Park, a spokesperson for Health Minister Deb Matthews acknowledged there are wait lists but added, “Those who need service the most are getting it.”

Cook of the OSLA has been trying unsuccessfully to meet with Matthews since last December. She says a policy adviser to Matthews insisted that funding and service levels in CCACs remained unchanged from a year ago.

That’s dead wrong, says Cook.

Sadly, it’s the failure of anyone in power to take action to correct the situation that is most appalling.

As a first step to improve the situation, the McGuinty government needs to find out exactly why the wait list is growing, why CCACs have stopped referring patients and why people are being told to pay out of their own pocket for services they need.

Currently, none of this information is being made public.

What’s needed is for someone to step up and be accountable for this disgraceful mess. Only then will patients begin to receive the treatment they so rightly deserve.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/805216–hepburn-ontario-s-disgraceful-cuts-to-speech-therapy >

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