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Steelworkers' union may take legal action over derostering of patients in Sault Ste. Marie

Union president Da Prat says GHC needs to recruit more foreign-trained doctors; 2251 leader joined by NDP politicians at Toronto press conference Wednesday as 10,000 GHC patients face losing family doctors by May 31
2022-07-2022 Mike Da Prat 1
USW Local 2251 president Mike Da Prat. David Helwig/SooToday

A version of this story was first published by SooToday, a Village Media publication.

A United Steelworkers local is considering legal action over a Sault Ste. Marie medical centre's decision to remove 10,000 of its patients — many of them steelworkers — from its practice, leaving them without a family doctor. 

United Steelworkers Local 2251 president Mike Da Prat joined Ontario NDP politicians, fellow labour officials and an Algoma Steel retiree at a news conference Wednesday at Queen's Park.

The group voiced concerns over the Group Health Centre’s Jan. 25 announcement that 10,000 patients will lose access to their family doctor as of May 31, 2024.

“I am one of those individuals,” Da Prat said, joining Wednesday's conference by phone.

“Due to a severe shortage of primary care providers provincially and nationally we have been unable to find replacements for providers who have closed their practices over the last several years at Group Health Centre,” said Dr. Jodie Stewart, Algoma District Medical Group CEO and chair in the Jan. 25 GHC announcement. 

Group Health Centre was formed by the union before public medicare in Canada, and paid for by steelworkers.

Da Prat said the current governance model for GHC, established by the province’s former Liberal government and carried on by the Progressive Conservatives, has damaged the original aim to provide health care for Algoma Steel employees and other Sault and area residents.

“In 1959, steelworkers were looking for the ability to provide good health care to its members, but even though it was primarily for the members first, it included all people of Sault Ste. Marie.”

“It’s both governments that are to blame here,” Da Prat said, referring to Ontario’s former Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne and the current Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford. 

“The Group Health Centre continued working until 2012, and the Ministry of Health came in and negotiated a Group Health Centre funding and governance agreement. They got involved in changing the governance of Group Health from the model that it was to the model that it is today. Now, if a physician leaves or retires, his roster is removed from the enrolment list of the Group Health Centre. Now what the new model does is it makes sure that the most senior people of the enrolled population, based on the fact that they are more likely to be with the older doctors ready to retire, will, in fact, be kicked out.”

“All the members enrolled should be entitled to have whatever services are available. In other words, they should be distributed across the available medical group. It was never intended that we belonged to a specific doctor and that if that doctor were to leave we would end up orphaned. I myself have been through three doctors.”

Da Prat was asked if steelworkers would take legal action against GHC or the provincial government over any perceived breach of agreement.

“We are looking into having meetings to discuss the governance with Group Health Centre. If we can’t come to a satisfactory conclusion, we have retained legal assistance to look into the governance issues,” Da Prat said.

“An additional 6,000 patients are at risk of losing primary care in the near future if current trends continue” said Algoma District Medical Group CEO and chair Dr. Stewart in January.

That followed news that over the past six years close to 3,000 patients were de-rostered by GHC.  

“The other problem that exists is that people (doctors) don’t want to come to Sault Ste. Marie whether we’re naturally gifted or not," Da Prat said.

"What the government needs to do, especially the provincial government, is they need to recruit from overseas individuals that would be happy to come, and for a guaranteed path to citizenship, would have to agree to work in the northern isolated communities. As far as Toronto is concerned, Sudbury is north, and that’s good enough. This is not a comment on Sudbury, but Sudbury has much more services than we do. We align more with the isolated communities where a lot of doctors don’t want to come and stay, and they need to be attracted. The Ministry is supposed to oversee health, not be a bureaucratic organization that doesn't care and has a ‘one size fits all’ for health care.”

Da Prat added that nurses used to have nursing aides but that nurses now are overworked and burnt out.

Da Prat also mentioned the plight of doctors bogged down with paperwork that takes up much of their time.

That has been identified by many doctors as a major source of physician burnout and has led many medical school students to shy away from family medicine and pursue specialized medicine instead.

“This government requires extensive notes for people who are sick and on sick leave. If the doctor simply says ‘I treated this person and this person needs to be off for three weeks’ they bombard that doctor with piles and piles of forms that need to be filled out,” Da Prat said.

Doctors also have to personally seek specialists for patients.

That is a task, Da Prat said, that should be handled by clerical support staff.

Doctors have stated that such help is needed, along with that of other health team members such as physiotherapists, mental health workers and diabetes treatment workers in treating patients.

“I might look a little old to be an orphan but I’m one of the 10,000 in Sault Ste. Marie who longer has a doctor. I’ve been with the Group Health Centre for 35 years and all of a sudden I get a note saying thank you very much for being a member of the Group Health Centre, you are no longer,” said Burnie Thorp, a retired Sault steelworker in attendance at Wednesday’s news conference.              

“We have paid for this health care and so we think it is our right and we feel it’s incumbent on this government to make sure that they deliver on what we feel and what we believe to be our right,” Thorp said.

Thorp said $1.1 million in provincial government funding for two Sault-based health care facilities — Sault Community Health Centre and Maamwesying North Shore Community Health Services — announced by Sault MPP Ross Romano Feb. 2, trips to walk-in clinics or Sault Area Hospital’s emergency department do not address the crisis faced by rostered GHC patients.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones cited that funding when she was asked about the issue in question period Wednesday.

"But we won’t stop there," she said. "We will continue to work with Sault Ste. Marie, with primary care practitioners, with nurse-led practitioner clinics to make sure that access is there in community."

Wednesday’s news conference included Marit Stiles, Ontario NDP leader and Leader of the Official Opposition, New Democrat France Gelinas, Nickel Belt MPP and health critic, Myles Sullivan, United Steelworkers (USW) District 6 director and Jamie West, New Democrat Sudbury MPP and labour critic.

“There are many concrete actions this government can take,” Gelinas said, calling the Group Health Centre “a gem” in health care.

“We do have a shortage of family physicians but we do have other health care professionals that are available to come and work in Sault Ste. Marie. In Sudbury we have an unemployed nurse practitioner opening up a private clinic. She wants to help people that don’t have access but she cannot find a job that will pay her. Give the Group Health Centre money so that they can hire social workers, dietitians, nurses, nurse practitioners and other health care professionals to be part of a team so that they can continue to look after all of their members while they continue their really hard work to recruit more physicians. Yes, for many things you will need physicians but for many others you can be seen, helped and receive care from other registered health-care professionals who can help you with your mental health, diabetes, sore back or wrist. The Group Health Centre has been asking for money for this for a long time.”

Sault MPP Ross Romano said a task force of local health professionals to address the doctor shortage in the Sault will be formed and wants that task force to have its first meeting on March 1.

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