Roughly 200 residents filled the pews at the Meaford United Church on Monday, March 13, to hear Grey Bruce Health Services CEO Lance Thurston make the case for consolidation of surgical services as part of an effort to find significant cost savings aimed at mitigating budget shortfalls after changes to the provincial funding formula for hospitals negatively impacted the GBHS.
Thurston told council that while the the proposed consolidation of surgical services to Owen Sound would mean the discontinuation of day surgeries at the Meaford, Markdale, and Southampton hospitals, it would also mean savings of $550,000 per year. If implemented, the consolidation of surgical services would also negate the need to spend $3 million to replace and refurbish surgical equipment and sterilization systems, along with other required improvements to the rural operating rooms.
Under the proposal, endoscopy services, which require less stringent requirements to maintain sterility of environment and do not require a fully equipped operating room, would continue at all rural hospitals under the GBHS umbrella.
Currently five percent of the roughly 10,000 day surgeries conducted by GBHS hospitals each year are done in Meaford. Thurston says that the Owen Sound operating rooms are currently running at 87 percent capacity and could absorb the additional six to eight extra surgeries per day that would result if surgical services were to be consolidated.
After six years of balanced budgets, GBHS, which operates six hospitals as well as a withdrawal management centre, is now facing the prospect of hefty annual operating deficits due in part to a change in the provincial funding model for hospitals their size. In his presentation Thurston noted that if GBHS does not change its cost structure, the annual deficit from operations is expected to exceed $17 million by the end of 2019/20.
While Meaford councillors appreciate the predicament faced by the GBHS they are leery of a cut to surgical services leading to deeper cuts in the future that could ultimately put Meaford's hospital in jeopardy and have a negative impact on the community. Councillors were also concerned about the potential impact on the already difficult task of recruiting family physicians to Meaford.
“It has a huge impact on our ability to recruit physicians to our area, and we're badly under-serviced in that area. But it also has a huge impact on the health and well-being of our community, but also an economic impact, and we can't ignore that,” said Mayor Barb Clumpus.
Councillor Mike Poetker reminded Thurston that Meaford residents have a long history of supporting their hospital financially.
“Meaford has, through many of the people you see here today and through the Meaford Hospital Foundation, an enduring practice of substantial fundraising,” noted Poetker. “So with the reduced responsibilities at Meaford Hospital, do you have an expectation that this fundraising will continue?”
Thurston acknowledged that he and the GBHS board are aware that decisions made in cost-cutting efforts could have a negative impact on fundraising.
Councillor Steven Bartley expressed concern about the future of the hospital.
“I'm all for getting rid of inefficiencies, but on behalf of the people in this room and the people in this town, I implore you, Mr. Thurston, to leave us our hospital,” said Bartley, drawing applause from the audience.
Thurston stressed that Meaford's hospital is not in jeopardy. “There seems to be the sense that changing surgical services equals closing the hospital. That's not the case,” countered Thurston.
Mayor Clumpus also had concerns that surgical services might be just the first of many cuts. “Can you give us some assurances that this is not the thin edge of the wedge?” asked Clumpus.
Thurston assured the mayor that the GBHS board has no interest in “going deeper” in their quest to find cost savings, particularly if it would be disruptive. He stressed that the potential cost savings identified by the board would help relieve the budgetary pressures while also helping to make the case to the province to adjust the funding formula for the GBHS.
The GBHS is continuing its advocacy efforts with the South West LHIN and the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. The Board is optimistic that by April the Ministry of Health will have responded to its request for changes to the funding model for GBHS.
Mayor Clumpus also pressured Thurston to hold a public input meeting, something the board had previously pledged to do, however in recent weeks they have instead asked area residents to share their concerns by phone or email.
A dedicated phone line (519-378-1587) and email (Back2Balance@gbhs.on.ca) have been set up for those interested in commenting on the consolidation of surgical services, or for anyone wanting to make suggestions or share their concerns, but Clumpus suggested that the community deserves a public meeting.
“I would end with an encouragement to have a public meeting, if this is any indication of the interest here,” suggested Clumpus, noting the attendance at the meeting. The remainder of Clumpus's comments requesting a public meeting be held were lost in applause from the audience.