Derostered patients take aim at PC government during rally

Frustration over the current state of local healthcare was laid bare on the streets of Sault Ste. Marie Friday afternoon.

Dozens of Algoma residents—including labour organizers, medical professionals and soon-to-be derostered Group Health Centre (GHC) patients — gathered outside Progressive Conservative MPP Ross Romano's downtown office around noon to voice their displeasure.

Brandishing signs that read "healthcare is a human right" and "fast track int'l doctors certification," the demonstrators took aim at what they saw as the province's failure to act as the region has been struggling to recruit and retain physicians for years.

This dismal trend reached a low point in late January, when GHC officials announced that, because of a lack of local doctors, they will be cutting one sixth of its 60,000 patients loose by May 31.

Sharon Indrevold, former president of the Algoma District branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, is just one of the 10,000 patients who is slated to lose access to a primary care physician in three months' time, which is why she decided to join Friday's rally in solidarity.

"I was absolutely terrified and still am, because as you get older more health issues arise," Indrevold told The Sault Star.

"I was lucky that my doctor is hanging on until the end of March. She was able to schedule me in for an appointment, just for a follow up. But after that I'm cut loose, and I'm really worried about that."

Another rally attendee who is on the cusp of being derostered by GHC is United Steelworkers Local 2251 president Mike Da Prat, who didn't hold back in his criticism of MPP Romano.

The union leader scoffed at Romano's previous public statements about working closely with government officials to resolve this healthcare crisis with GHC, pointing out that this issue should have been addressed years ago.

"The Ministry of Health ought to have known what was happening and the government should have paid attention to it," Da Prat said. "Instead, they don't care. Healthcare is only important to them when they're worried about losing their position."

Around 1 p.m., a splinter group of demonstrators migrated over to the Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre several kilometres away, where Romano was meeting with his new primary care task force for the very first time.

This task force is composed of local health-care professionals who Romano recruited after being informed of GHC's derostering plans.

While this task force is meant to work directly with the province to address this problem, Indrevold remains doubtful that it can be effective without the involvement of local union members.

"It's easy to say 'put a task force in place,' but who do you got on it?" she said.

"You need to have the grassroots people to be able to move that forward. And we're willing to do that, but we haven't been contacted or invited."

Friday's rally also featured a small number of internationally trained doctors, who were there to remind the province of a precious resource that they aren't tapping into.

This group included Sam Saleth, a general practitioner from India who had around eight years of experience practising medicine before coming to Canada in 2022.

Saleth said the region is home to around 49 similarly experienced medical professionals from other countries, many of whom are still waiting to receive their permanent residency and special certification so they can get to work.

Because of this, Saleth said fast-tracking the certification process for these international physicians is an easy solution to the ongoing doctor shortage.

"When the community is losing doctors and you have a source [of international doctors] that you can make use of in some way ... you should make use of it," he said.

Romano did not meet with those taking part in Friday's rally.

The Star reached out to Romano for comment on the demonstration but did not receive a response by press time.

However, the province did circulate a news release on Friday announcing that it and the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) had reached an agreement on the implementation of the 2021-24 physician services agreement.

As part of this agreement, Ontario doctors will receive a 2.8 per cent ($448 million) bump in compensation for services provided throughout 2023-24.

"This agreement is more proof of the strong and productive relationship between the province and Ontario’s physicians," Minister of Health Sylvia Jones said in this news release.

"We look forward to continuing to work together with the Ontario Medical Association to support our doctors and connect more Ontario patients to convenient care, closer to home.”

While this agreement received some words of support from OMA president Dr. Andrew Park, representatives from the Section on General and Family Practice (SGFP) were less enthusiastic.

Despite describing this funding announcement as a "small step in the right direction," SGFP chair Dr. Aly Abdulla believes the 2.8 per cent increase will mostly go to specialists and hospital-based physicians while family doctors are given a much smaller piece of the pie.

“After taxes and overhead, this funding amounts to an extra $12 a day for the average family physician,” Abdulla said. “That isn’t going to help hire and retain more family physicians or get Ontarians the community care they need. It might be enough for a coffee and a bagel.”

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

Kyle Darbyson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sault Star