By James Matthews
There’s a sure-fire way to see how much a group of people value a service.
It’s in their reaction when they’re told that service will be taken away from them.
Haliburton Highlands Health Services announced in April that the emergency department at the Minden Hills facility will be permanently closed June 1 and consolidated with emergency medical resources at the Haliburton site.
The announcement was like a loud clap in the night for Haliburton County’s municipal leaders, residents, and even health care professionals.
Minden Hills Mayor Bob Carter said during the township council’s May 25 meeting that the closure of the Minden emergency department is the overwhelming issue facing the township.
But, according to a statement issued May 29 by HHHS, another major issue, at least from a health care perspective, is a shallow staffing pool from which to draw nurses to work shifts.
Carolyn Plummer, the president and CEO at HHHS, said it is that staffing shortages that’s created the need to consolidate services to one facility.
Carter said efforts to preserve the level of health care service in the area and save the ER commenced in short order after the Minden closure was announced. He said there was an extremely well-attended rally in Minden that drew a pair of Liberal representatives from Queen’s Park.
“They also took some further action when they got back to Toronto on social media,” Carter said of the Liberal MPPs who attended the rally.
“I have to say I was overwhelmed by the support in Minden,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful support.”
That’s included the many people who inked their names to petitions and the many people who have protested and helped spread the word about the closure. One group even began collecting money to fund a legal challenge of the HHHS decision.
“That was probably the most moving part,” Carter said. “We have a lot of people in this township who are marginalized sometimes by financial challenges, sometimes by age, and ability and mobility.
“But there were people who stood in line for extended periods of time to donate a toonie or donate $5 that they could probably ill afford. But it was such an important thing that they made that sacrifice to do that and I think that was very moving.”
Carter didn’t grow up in Minden. In fact, he said, he’s only lived there for about a decade. In that time, he’s seen how residents pull together to help one another through seasonal flooding and all manner of hardship.
“Lord knows we’ve had to do that more than once over the last decade that I’ve been here,” he said. “And this is just another example.”
He said council has asked and pleaded, begged HHHS to reconsider what many people think is a bad decision.
“But they have refused,” he said.
If the decision was to be reversed, there remains the predicament of having enough nurses and physicians to work shifts through the summer months when the local population is augmented by the cottage crowd.
“Both the Haliburton and Minden emergency departments have been experiencing severe and persistent nursing staff shortages over the past 18 months, in addition to physician staffing shortages primarily at the Haliburton site,” Plummer said.
“The Minden site also began to experience physician shortages in April 2023, and had to turn to the HealthForceOntario Emergency Department Locum Program for coverage.”
Carter said the closing will happen as planned on June 1. And the question will become what’s next?
Carter said physicians who have worked the Minden ER believe they can resurrect the facility in the fall. One of the reasons for that, he said, is other hospitals demand commitments of set timeframes by doctors that want to work shifts. It would take the expiration of those commitments elsewhere for physicians to be able to return to Minden.
“That, I think, is what we need to be working on,” Carter said. “As I’ve said many times: This is not a sprint. This is a marathon and we need to support … the people of Minden to do all that we can to try to come to a better resolution about this.”
Plummer said the HHHS staffing model has been one that relied on physicians from other Ontario hospitals and clinics willing to fill shifts at the Minden site. But that’s become a hindrance as those hospitals have also been dealing with their own staff shortages.
“As well, the physician schedule for the Minden emergency department wasn’t entirely full this summer,” she said. “There were still gaps that needed to be filled.”
Plummer said most nurses work shifts at both the Haliburton and Minden sites. That means an overall nursing shortage affects both facilities.
“It’s important to be clear that without adequate nursing coverage, the emergency departments cannot stay open,” she said. “It is these nursing staff shortages that have created the greatest risk for unpredictable, short-notice closures, which has had a serious impact on our ability to continue providing safe, quality, reliable emergency care for the whole community.”