Strong case for health watchdog

Posted on June 16, 2008 in Health Debates – comment – Strong case for health watchdog
June 16, 2008. Carol Goar

The political became tragically personal for a Toronto MPP this spring.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo lost her uncle in the C. difficile outbreak at East General Hospital. The family knew something was wrong when Joseph De Grande was placed in isolation. But the hospital did not explain the infectious disease or warn of its deadly risk.

“Families who share my family’s pain are clamouring for hospitals to be more transparent and accountable,” Di Novo said.

For two years the NDP had been calling on the government to improve public oversight of the province’s hospitals. But the C. difficile outbreak put the issue in sudden, sharp relief.

So the party is trying again. On June 5, NDP health critic France Gélinas introduced a private member’s bill, giving Ontario’s ombudsman the power to investigate hospitals and long-term care homes. She hopes it will be approved in principle before MPPs take their summer break. That way, it could become law next fall.

Ontario is the only province whose ombudsman, André Marin, has no jurisdiction over public hospitals. He has asked for it repeatedly. So have his predecessors.

This is the NDP’s second attempt to extend the ombudsman’s mandate to health-care institutions. Its first private member’s bill, introduced by Andrea Horvath in 2006, died on the order paper last fall.

“How many more deaths have to occur, how many more shocking disease outbreaks have to occur before the McGuinty government realizes that our hospitals need to be more transparent?” NDP Leader Howard Hampton asked in the Legislature.

Health Minister George Smitherman assured legislators that the C. difficile outbreak would be fully investigated. But he turned down both the NDP’s proposal to open hospitals to the ombudsman and a Conservative motion calling for a public inquiry.

Instead, he asked Dr. Michael Baker of the University Health Network, an expert in infectious disease control, to recommend steps to improve patient safety.

No doubt Baker will do a thorough and professional job. But patients and their relatives will still have nowhere to turn if they can’t get answers from hospital authorities or feel that they’re being treated unfairly.

Gélinas, a physiotherapist with an MA in business administration, worked in Laurentian Hospital (now part of Sudbury Regional Hospital), then became executive director of the region’s Community Health Centre. She also served as president of the Association of Ontario Health Centres.

The first-term MPP believes most Ontario hospitals deliver excellent care. Some have their own complaints bureau. But there are times, she says, when an independent outside investigator is needed.

“When a family member is up against a hospital or nursing home, the health-care facility always has the upper hand. The ombudsman can put them on an equal footing,” she says.

Gélinas rejects the argument that Marin, a lawyer who has probed everything from police practices to property taxes, lacks the clinical knowledge to investigate hospitals and nursing homes. “That’s an insult to the office of the ombudsman,” she says, pointing out that Marin has access to experts in every field.

It is clear that Ontarians want more oversight, she adds. Last year, the ombudsman’s office received 237 complaints – which it had to decline – about hospitals and long-term-care facilities.

Gélinas is convinced Ontario’s ombudsman will eventually be allowed into the health-care sector. “It’s just a question of when. I’d like that time to be now.”

Only a handful of private member’s bills ever become law at Queen’s Park. As an opposition MPP, Gélinas has no control over the fate of her proposal.

“But it’s still alive and that’s a good sign. And community pressure is building,” she says. “With the C. difficile outbreak, more and more people are starting to see the value of an ombudsman. They’re asking if his office could help.”

She hopes Smitherman’s reforms will spare other families the ordeal Di Novo and her cousins went through.

But she doubts one-off fixes will restore confidence in Ontario’s health-care system. What is needed, Gélinas insists, is a permanent watchdog.

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