Accent: 'Sudbury is the home of hallway medicine'

·9 min read

For Sudbury residents, accessing hospital care can be an exercise in extreme patience.

Health Sciences North — Sudbury's regional hospital, which services people from across northeastern Ontario — has been operating beyond its means for years, constantly overcapacity and struggling to handle an overflow of patients in need of acute care.

President and CEO Dominic Giroux believes the problem at the heart of this crisis is simple: “The hospital was built too small.”

As of May 25, the 454-bed hospital had 575 admitted patients, plus an additional 60 patients receiving care at the Clarion Hotel. Of those admitted patients, 31 were in the emergency department waiting for a bed. Across the region, 24 patients were waiting to be admitted at all, and could expand to wait anywhere from five to eight days.

Accounting for the dozens of others receiving care at one of the hospital’s 14 sites region-wide, “In total, it’s 195 patients today in non-conventional hospital settings in Sudbury,” said Giroux.

It’s a problem at the front of local voters’ minds as they prepare to head to the polls next week.

The Star asked each of the major party candidates for the Sudbury and Nickel Belt ridings to respond to questions about what their party would do to address the capacity problems plaguing HSN. Here’s what they had to say.

- Jamie West (Sudbury, Ontario New Democratic Party)

“Sudbury is the home of hallway medicine,” he said of HSN’s capacity issues. “In a nutshell, it was built too small. When the decision was made to close the old hospital and amalgamate and make a one-site hospital, they never fulfilled that promise. That was 20 years ago and we’re still paying the price.”

For West, the solution comes down to providing more funding, after what he calls disastrous budget freezes that halted expansion projects and laid off staff.

“If you’re underfunded to begin with, and inflation keeps climbing, every year you’re getting a cut,” he said. “What you need to do is re-fund to properly have the care that’s there.”

He said the funding would go towards expansion projects and hiring more health-care professionals like nurse practitioners and doctors.

He added that health care is a top priority for the NDP, and said that would be reflected in their budget.

“The priority for our province is not building highways through green space to reward some of our developer buddies,” he said.

“Our priority is helping people get the best quality care possible. We have a plan to ensure that the wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes, because the middle and working class are being squeezed. We have a commitment to not raise taxes at all for the middle class.”

- David Robinson (Sudbury, Green Party of Ontario)

Economist and Laurentian University professor David Robinson doesn’t see expansion as the solution for HSN’s capacity challenges.

“One of the big mistakes people make when they talk about HSN is it’s actually a whole system,” he said of the hospital's more than a dozen sites. “When we talk about the hospital itself being too small, we’re focusing on one part where there’s a crunch and we’re not dealing with the overall system.”

Robinson argues that to properly address overcrowding, funding needs to be targeting not at the building itself, but at the underfunded services that operate outside of the hospital.

“The big gaps are actually extended care, alternative level of services, prevention services, the emergency ward,” he said. “Because those functions are not adequately funded, the load is concentrating on that one set of buildings, which are not really designed to do all the things they’re being asked to do.”

Robinson said providing funding to expand the capacity of services was a Green party priority, to relieve the pressure on HSN by diverting patients who don’t need hospital-level care to high-quality services elsewhere.

The process won’t be quick, he said, nor will it be cheap. The Green Party intends to divert funding away from budget items like highway funding and fossil fuels in hopes of saving big in the long run.

“Does that mean we have to borrow a little bit in the next few years? Yeah, but you might notice that our budget is virtually the same size as the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals. Our deficit is the same size. We can get all those savings without costing any significantly more in taxes.”

- David Farrow (Sudbury, Ontario Liberal Party)

For Liberal candidate David Farrow, partnerships with other local health-care providers are at the forefront of his solution for HSN.

“I believe Health Sciences North is over-stretched and its dedicated staff is overworked,” he said in a written statement.

“My strategy is to look for partnerships that will immediately relieve the stress on HSN. Expanding HSN will take decades. Partnering with local stakeholders can begin right now.”

He proposes partnerships similar to the current agreement to move alternate level care patients to a St. Joseph’s run facility. Local service providers that could be potential targets include Maison McCulloch Hospice for palliative care patients, and the city or province for overdose cases that currently present at HSN’s emergency unit.

“Beds in the hospital can be freed up tomorrow, if we do a few small things today,” Farrow said.

A full review of HSN funding, to ensure its financial needs are being met, is also on Farrow’s list of things he said he’d do.

“As MPP for Sudbury, I would like to see assurances that HSN is appropriately funded.”

- Marc Despatie (Sudbury, Conservative)

Conservative party candidates across the country have not been very interested in sharing their party platforms, and the PCs’ Sudbury candidate Marc Despatie has been no exception.

Despatie, a former communications director and Ontario Commissioner’s Representative, has declined to participate in local all-candidates debates and events throughout his campaign, citing a desire to knock on doors and be face-to-face with the public. He did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

He did, however, provide a written response to a question about HSN to The Star earlier this month.

While he did not say how a renewed PC government would address capacity issues at HSN specifically, he did say that they plan on investing $40 billion over the next 10 years in hospital infrastructure. That would include $27 billion in capital grants for 3,000 beds province-wide.

“While the Del Duca-Wynne Liberals froze hospital base funding budgets for years, Doug Ford and the PCs have invested more in health care than any government in Ontario history,” Despatie wrote.

He did not specify how many of those beds would be for Sudbury.

In addition, he said, “we’re also investing in frontline health care workers, not in the health care bureaucracy like the former government.”

- France Gelinas (Nickel Belt, Ontario New Democratic Party)

In her last four terms as Nickel Belt MPP, NDP candidate France Gelinas has been no stranger to the challenges facing health care in the North.

As her party’s Health and Health Care Critic, she’s repeatedly emphasized her concerns over the lack of access to primary care in northeastern Ontario, which she said includes thousands without a family doctor.

“As soon as people get sick and need care, it quickly shifts to the long wait times at HSN,” she said.

Gelinas said her top priority if re-elected would be to ensure that HSN receives the $5 million in funding it has requested to undertake its needs review, and to support the hospital through its expansion process going forward.

Part of addressing funding concerns would include repealing Bill 124, a 2019 Ford government measure, which capped annual salary increases at one per cent for some public sector workers, including nurses.

“It was so, so demoralizing,” Gelinas said, adding that the timing of the Bill with the pandemic led to a mass exodus of nursing staff across the province.

“We’ll make sure we respect every health-care worker. We would like to help them recruit, help them retain, and help them return with jobs that they don’t have to work extra shifts, weekends, and holidays.”

- Gilles Proulx (Nickel Belt, Ontario Liberal Party)

For first-time candidate Gilles Proulx, the lack of space and beds at HSN is a top-of-mind concern.

In an emailed response, Proulx said that if the Liberal party were to form government, it would increase the number of hospital beds by 20 per cent (HSN currently has 454 beds, so that increase would bring the total number to about 544).

Though he acknowledged that more solutions were needed to fit those additional beds, Proulx wasn’t clear what exactly those solutions would be.

“We all know that HSN was built too small,” he wrote. “We now have to work with HSN to see how to expand the hospital with considerations to the environment and costs.”

The party also has novel suggestions to relieve the hospital's load through pre-emptive measures.

“We will modernize health care with greater access to primary care through phone, email, video, and text, and empower pharmacists to provide more basic services,” he said. “We will also invest $1 billion to help clear the backlog.”

- Glenys Babcock (Nickel Belt, Green Party of Ontario)

Not much is known about Green Party candidate Glenys Babcock’s platform.

The party introduce her as their candidate for Nickel Belt earlier this month, but since then, she hasn’t had much to say.

Babcock agreed to provide a written response when The Star reached her for comment, but didn’t respond to follow-up correspondence.

She has not previously articulated her views on HSN.

- Randy Hazlett (Nickel Belt, PC Party of Ontario)

Much like his Sudbury counterpart, Nickel Belt PC candidate Randy Hazlett has not been open about his platform, and did not respond to request for comment for this story.

While his positions are not widely known, the French River city councillor previously served two terms as a member of the Public Health Sudbury and Districts Board of Health.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

mjensen@postmedia.com

Twitter: @mia_rjensen

Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star

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