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'We are begging': Durham residents call on province to stop closure of rural hospital's in-patient beds

The province is working closely with the hospital in its decision to move its in-patient beds, a spokesperson says
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones attend an announcement at Seneca College, in King City, Ont., Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

A busload of concerned citizens went to Queen's Park this week to urge the province to stop the planned closure of in-patient beds at a small hospital in Grey County.

The South Bruce Grey Health Centre (SBGHC) announced in late April it will be moving the in-patient beds at its Durham hospital to two other hospitals in its local network as of June 3 due to a severe nursing shortage. 

The SBGHC has already reduced emergency department hours at that hospital and a nearby hospital in Chesley to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the Chesley site also closed on weekends, for the same reason.

"We are begging SBGHC, Premier (Doug) Ford and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones to come to the table," said Dawn McNab, chair of a local citizens committee, at a press conference at the legislature on Wednesday. She came with 380 letters of support for the hospital to deliver to Ford and Jones.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Jones said the minister has been in touch with the local MPP and mayor and the ministry is "working closely with the hospital directly" to help it navigate its decision to close the beds.

The spokesperson, Hannah Jensen, also characterized the hospital's changes as "refocus(ing) the function of their Durham site to primary care," and said that is what it was primarily being used for before the changes.

Durham Mayor Kevin Eccles said the local MPP, Rick Byers of the Progressive Conservatives, spoke at a recent public save-the-hospital meeting and said he couldn't promise results, just effort.

"I'm not sure what that really means," said Eccles. "We're pushing with him, but we haven't seen any results. I guess he didn't promise us any. And the effort? We haven't seen anything out of that effort as of yet either."

Both the Liberal and NDP health critics joined the residents in calling out the province for not stopping the removal of in-patient beds from Durham.

The NDP's France Gélinas warned that it could be a prelude to the hospital closing altogether, which the minister of health would be required to approve.

"You cannot close a hospital in Ontario without the minister of health signing off. And if you don't have beds anymore, and you don't have an emergency room anymore, you are closing a hospital and the hand the minister of health has to sign off," she said.

Liberal Adil Shamji said the province should "100 per cent" be stepping in.

"This is not a local problem, this is a systemic problem," he said, citing the provicewide shortage of nurses and personal support workers. 

"There's no question in my mind that the minister of health needs to step in, do her job, and give these communities, the support, the funding, and the framework necessary not just to recruit staff but to support and retain them," Shamji said.

At a public online meeting this week, SBGHC CEO Nancy Shaw denied the hospital was being closed altogether and said the board is looking to add some additional services that required less nursing time than round-the-clock in-patient beds.

When asked if the hospital was offering hiring incentives to nurses, Shaw said that she discusses the issue with other hospital leaders and that the hospital takes advantage of provincial programs for nurse education and gets the word out about job vacancies, including at job fairs.

The Ontario Nurses' Association slammed SBGHC for not doing more.

“Let’s be clear: this employer has failed miserably when it comes to retaining its registered nurses and recruiting additional nurses,” said Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) Provincial President Erin Ariss in a statement, adding that other hospitals have had success recruiting nurses by offering signing bonuses.

"This employer may say they have tried to recruit more nurses, but simply posting a job is not trying hard enough,” she said. “While Ontario continues to have the worst RN-to-population ratio in all of Canada, good employers are managing to hire. Clearly, there is an issue with management here."

Shaw said in a statement to The Trillium that the issue can't be solved with more funding.

"This decision is not about funding or cutting costs," she said. "Simply put, we do not have enough staff to keep both in-patient care and emergency services open at the Durham site. Relocating these beds allows us to protect access to urgent and emergent services in Durham."

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