NDP’s Horwath calls for public review of the planned shutdown of Hamilton’s pathology unit

Don Mitchell / Global News

The province’s official opposition is calling for a public review of the planned shutdown of Hamilton’s forensic pathology unit, citing “revenge” as a potential factor in the decision to move autopsies to Toronto.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement on Friday that the Doug Ford government needs to “immediately halt” the planned shutdown of the pathology unit over concern it will negatively impact police forces, municipalities and grieving families.

“I’ve been fighting the closure of the Hamilton Health Sciences forensic pathology unit because of the extra pain and hardship it’s going to cause families in the Hamilton and Niagara regions,” said Horwath. “Having to travel to Toronto, and arranging to bring the remains of your loved one back home to be laid to rest — those are stresses that families already living a nightmare shouldn’t have to face.”

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Horwath pointed to a National Post article in July that insinuated the Hamilton unit is closing down after an “abuse of power” complaint against Chief Forensic Pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen, and the province’s top coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer.

“These allegations are incredibly serious, and we need to get to the bottom on them,” said Horwath in pushing for the public review. “A cloud of suspicion hangs over the motivation behind the forensic unit’s closure, and Ontarians have certainly had enough backroom deals and revenge plots under the Ford administration.”

According to the province, Ontario’s Death Investigation System is involved in investigating approximately 15,000 deaths per year, with around 7,000 coroner-ordered autopsies each year.

An estimated 1,300 of those autopsies are investigations for Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Norfolk, Brant and Dufferin covering homicides, pediatric deaths and overdoses.

There are three full-time forensic pathologists in Hamilton, according to Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

In early July 2019, the union, which represents workers at Hamilton Health Sciences, showed outrage in a statement saying the province’s move to shift autopsies from Hamilton and area to Toronto’s Forensic and Coroners Complex (FSCC) is “poorly thought out.”

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“We dispute that closing this unit and moving its work to Toronto will generate savings of $3 million annually. Moving the unit will only shift the costs down the road and cause significant and costly delays in police investigations and trials, which are unaccounted for,” says Michael Hurley, president of Hospital Unions for CUPE. “We believe that the true costs of moving the service, properly accounted for, would show no economic basis for making this decision.”

Despite the resistance from Horwath and the union, a spokesperson from the Office of the Chief Coroner confirmed to Global News that cases began diverting to Toronto as of July 15.

“Cases from Halton Region, Waterloo Region, Wellington and Dufferin Counties are being diverted to the FSCC in Toronto. Full transfer of forensic pathology cases is expected to occur in July 2020,” said Julia Noonan-Savage.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s office says the decision to close the Hamilton Forensic Pathology Unit was an operational decision from the Chief Forensic Pathologist and the Chief Coroner.

“The government has confidence in the Chief Forensic Pathologist, Dr. Pollanen and the Chief Coroner, Dr. Huyer to take the necessary steps to ensure a strong death investigation system in Ontario,” Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, told Global News.

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