Critics blast Ontario government for ‘inaction’ on Minden ER closure set for June 1

A 'Minden Matters' sign across from the Haliburton Highlands Health Services hospital in Minden. Residents continue to fight the planned closure of the Minden ER on June 1. Patrick Porzuckek photo

With a week to go before the emergency department at the hospital in Minden, Ont., is slated to close, opposition members and health critics are asking the Ontario government to intervene.

In late April, Haliburton Highlands Health Services announced it would close the emergency department/room at its Minden hospital and consolidate services with the hospital in Haliburton, about 30 kilometres northeast. The health board has repeatedly cited “severe ongoing” nursing and staffing shortages as the prime reason for the ER closure to ensure one site will continually remain open to serve Haliburton County and not face temporary closures at one or both ERs.

The ED closure announcement has triggered a large public outcry from community leaders and residents — including a large Facebook group — over the lack of consultation on the decision and the timing of the closure amid the busy summer months in the heart of cottage country when the population is estimated to triple. Multiple petitions totalling 24,000 signatures are requesting a one-year moratorium on a closure to allow time to seek alternative solutions.

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Residents are also raising money to mount a legal challenge to the ER closure.

On Thursday morning, NDP MPP France Gélinas (Nickel Belt), the party’s health critic, was joined by the Ontario Health Coalition to discuss the closure and chastised Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones for their “inaction.”

Jones has repeatedly stated that the decision to close the ER rests in the hands of the health board, which manages the daily operational decisions. The Minden hospital itself will remain open.

But Gélinas says Jones has the “responsibility” and “authority” to intervene and calls the closure a financially driven one.

“The government cannot shy away from that responsibility,” Gélinas said during the press conference. “They cannot continue to tell me they have nothing to do with this or that it’s on the shoulder of the volunteers of the board of directors — that does not add up. The hospital is the highest priority for a minister of health. No hospital can close an emergency department or close altogether without her approval. She has to take on the responsibility and grant them a minimum one-year moratorium.

“But really, do the right thing and make sure this emergency department stays open for years to come.”

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Gélinas also criticized Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott for not fighting the closure and being the “voice of the community.”

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“She is not doing her job as an MPP if she’s not being the voice of her community,” said Gelinas. “Right now her community is screaming loud enough that I can hear them all the way up into the Nickel Belt.”

Global News has also reached out to Jones and Scott for comment. Scott has previously echoed the health minister’s message that the decision is a health board matter.

In a statement to Global News on Thursday afternoon,  Ministry of Health spokesperson Hannah Jensen said Scott has always been a “strong voice and advocate” for the riding to help deliver investments in healthcare. She said Scott remains in contact with the health board as they they “navigate the decision to consolidate the Haliburton and Minden ED sites.”

“What the NDP fails to understand is this consolidation was made by Haliburton Highlands Health Services board and leadership, as they are responsible for daily operational decisions, it is not a closure,” said Jensen.

“The consolidation will ensure patients are receiving emergency care in the location that is best-equipped to provide urgent acute care as the Minden site was used primarily to stabilize patients before being dispatched to larger centres and did not have any inpatient beds. The Minden site will remain open for some services and will continue to serve the community.

“Hospitals are independent corporation who are authorized to direct their own operations, including decisions respecting services that they provide and in what locations, the Ministry of Health is not involved in these decisions and to suggest so is false.”

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Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, echoed the sentiment and said the Minden ER closure may be a sign of future closures. She said she’s “surprised” and “disappointed” by the government’s “refusal” to take action on the ER closure announcement.

“It also puts at risk the rest of the small, rural emergency departments that are under a threat now,” said Mehra. “So if Minden falls, who is next? Chesley? Almonte? Wingham? Alexandria? Seaforth? These hospitals are experiencing emergency department closures because of staffing issues — the likes of which we have never seen.

“I have never seen a health minister do so little in the face of emergency department closures across the province,” she continued. “Threats to the core, most important services in our hospital. If you can’t staff an emergency department in a hospital, what else would be a bigger priority for a minister to do? Yet substantially nothing is happening to deal with the staffing crisis. In fact, they continue to dig in with policies that they know are worsening the staffing crisis.”

Also on Thursday, Marit Stiles, NDP leader, was in Minden to visit with residents in the central Ontario village to hear their concerns.

“I am incredibly inspired by the people of Minden – but they shouldn’t have to fight for basic medical services in their community,” stated Stiles. “It’s not normal for local ERs to close and leave rural communities without timely access to care. The Ontario NDP are standing beside the Minden community at every step of the way as we work together to save this ER.”

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In a statement issued Thursday, Dr. Norm Bottum, acting chief of staff with the HHHS, said the Minden ER decision was “an incredibly difficult” one for the leadership team that was made after “many years” of searching for solutions to stabilize and protect emergency services in Haliburton County.

“Our goal is to ensure our community has a stable and safe emergency care system that you can all count on,” he said. “This means having an emergency department that is open and able to provide quality services — each and every time someone shows up in an emergency department.”

He said HHHS has faced multiple, unpredictable, last-minute ER closures over the past few years. At a recent Haliburton County council meeting, HHHS president and CEO Carolyn Plummer noted there were 20 incidents of near-closures at the Haliburton ER last year — but none in Minden.

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“And we are committed to reducing this risk by consolidating services in one location that can provide consistent service to our community and those seeking care,” said Bottum. “We are also working closely with our EMS colleagues and they assure us that our community is supported by access to 911.

“Looking ahead, we are confident that the staffing coverage model will serve the increased volume expected at the Haliburton site. Our team will continue to deliver the emergency care you depend on, every time you need it.”

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