Last week, the Ontario Liberal Government released the specifics of the 2017-2018 Budget. Advertised as a prescription for a "stronger, healthier Ontario", the budget had all the usual darts and laurels typically thrown at a pre-election budget. The Liberals claimed they balanced the budget and were making necessary investments. Their critics claimed not.
From a health care perspective, what became startlingly evident, was that the Liberals seem to be unable to comprehend exactly how the health care system functions. They are seemingly unable or unwilling to look at the big picture when trying to solve problems.
Let's look at hospital funding. That hospitals in Ontario are under enormous stress is unquestioned. Stories of overcrowded emergency departments, long wait times, patients lying in hallways for days on end are rampant in the media. Additionally, budget pressures on hospitals continue to result in nurses being laid off despite the fact hospitals are full. Concerns raised years ago about how this will lead to adverse patient outcomes, are sadly now coming true.
In response, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has been repeatedly stating that he has ensured that hospital funding increase by $518 Million next year. A large number, but it represents only a three per cent increase in the hospital budget, which totals about $17.2 BILLION dollars (and Hoskins thought doctors were expensive!). It is also less than hospitals had asked for.
I won't begrudge hospitals extra money. They have been starved under austerity level budgets during Hoskins leadership. But is throwing money at hospitals the only way to solve the problem? Is it the best solution?
However, one of the main issues that hospitals face is the persistently high rate of Alternative Level of Care (ALC) patients. The official definition of ALC is pretty complicated. The simple definition is patients are well enough to be discharged from hospital, but not well enough to return to their own home. The majority of ALC patients are waiting for nursing homes.
The rates of ALC patients vary in different parts of Ontario, but the provincial average is around 15 per cent. This means that if you have a hospital with 100 acute care beds, fifteen will be occupied by patients who should be in a different facility, usually a nursing home. But because there aren't enough nursing home beds, they're stuck in hospital.
So, when a patient comes to the Emergency department with, say severe abdominal pain due to internal bleeding, and needs to be admitted to hospital, a large part of the reason why she waits for 5 days in a hallway, is that there are no nursing home beds for the patients currently in hospital to go to.
Despite the fact that it is widely acknowledged Ontario is greying and that our percentage of seniors will rise to almost 18 per cent by 2021, there appears to be no discernable plan to actually build more nursing homes. In fact, the only investments that I can find are those to renovate existing beds. While that's a nice enough thing to do, and will increase the comfort level of LTC residents (which I think is essential), it won't offload the overcapacity from hospitals.
When I was the Health Links lead physician for my area, we were involved in a plan to reduce hospital admissions from nursing homes. As part of that, we found that the cost of a hospital admission was around $975 a day (standard ward bed). The cost of a nursing home? How about $143 a day? Seriously, you can fund seven nursing home beds, for the cost of one hospital bed.
So back to the hypothetical 100 bed hospital. Would it not make more sense to fund fourteen nursing home beds (at the cost of two hospital beds) to take the pressure off the hospital? Especially when we already have a nice mix of private and public companies willing to build LTC homes? And would that not reduce the costs to the hospital because hospitals are chronically paying staff overtime to handle overcapacity situations?
Now in fairness the final solution probably requires a combination of things. Hospitals do have fixed operational costs that increase yearly and need to be accounted for, and should get more money.
But a proper solution must also look at the big picture, and look at creative ways of reducing hospital expenses. Not only do we need 26,000 more nursing home beds right now, but given how our population is greying, we will need 50,000 more in six years. Otherwise the ALC rates will rise, and the Emergency departments will back up more. To not have a plan in place to address this shows a complete lack of comprehension of the stresses the system faces.
EricHoskins appears to only be capable of reacting to crises. Bad news story about hospitals affecting re-election chances? Throw money at them. That's not good enough. We need leaders that understand how interconnected health care is, and how events in one part of the system, affect others.
The people of Ontario deserve better than what Eric Hoskins is offering.
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