By Emily Stonehouse
Thursday, June 29 brought on a few things: the last day of school for local kids, record-high heat waves, increased air quality statements, and the first time the Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) made a public appearance since they announced the Minden ED closure on April 20, 2023.
A momentous day overall.
The town hall was implemented as an action item out of the recent HHHS AGM, where communications were addressed as a major area of improvement for the organization. The Minden Hills town hall was the first of its kind, before HHHS plans to visit each municipality over the coming weeks.
HHHS showed their new faces; with Lauren Ernst, the communications lead for HHHS as the moderator, and Veronica Nelson, the acting president and CEO of HHHS, who stepped into the role on June 12. After starting with a Land Acknowledgement from Minden Hills Mayor Bob Carter, the packed room of over 150 residents were eager to get their questions answered.
“The purpose is to hear from the community, and to work with them and our health system partners to provide quality care to our patients,” Nelson said. “Having these productive conversations to shape the future of Haliburton Highlands Health Services really optimizes health and well being in Haliburton County.”
Nelson began the session by addressing a series of questions that had been submitted to HHHS in advance, with the first being a query about what is currently being housed at the Minden site. She noted that the Minden Hospital remains open, and continues to offer long-term care, diagnostic services such as x-rays and bone density, access to the Helipad, and the urgent care clinic, operated by the Kawartha North Family Health Team. The clinic can provide care to non-life-threatening health care concerns, as well as walk-ins.
One of the major concerns that arose a multitude of times was the aspect of wait times. “Friends who have recently been to the Haliburton ER describe ballooning wait times,” one submitted question noted, “Our summer camps are not yet in full operation and most cottagers haven’t arrived yet. How will the Haliburton ER possibly cope with the increased demand?”
Nelson has prepared a slide to address such an issue. She noted that the provincial average for wait times was three hours in the waiting room, with 76 per cent of patients finishing their emergency visit within four hours.
For Haliburton, since the closure of the Minden ED on June 1, patients spent an average of 2.1 hours in the waiting room, with 91 per cent of patients finishing their visit within four hours. Nelson believed that this wait time will lessen as the urgent care clinic in Minden continues to take shape.
Another question raised was in regards to the HHHS deficit of $4.4 million dollars from 2022-2023. Nelson noted that the approved operating budget for HHHS has indicated a surplus of $114,000 before net amortization and grant revenues. They are also implementing a human resource service rebuild, as well as a series of reduced utility costs to assist with the deficit.
While Nelson waded through the submitted questions, attendees began to ask her questions on the spot. One of the major concerns was exactly why the closure occurred on June 1, as the summer months hadn’t quite opened for business. This led Nelson into discussing staffing.
“The first thing I have to say about staffing is what an incredible, dedicated, fantastic team we have,” she said. It was noted that the major reason for the closure was due to a shortage of nursing staff, and the dependency on nursing agency staff, which began in August 2021. “I think that was a turning point for many organizations,” she said, “and since then it has escalated. We were critically short on nursing staff.”
It was at this point in the presentation that the crowd began to get a little rowdier. Personal stories were swapped, specific wait times were referenced, and anecdotes were shared that attendees had heard on Facebook.
When one attendee asked about the whereabouts of HHHS Chair David O’Brien, it was reported that he was absent due to a medical appointment. This caused the emotions of the crowd to continue to build. It was noted that O’Brien will be at future town hall meetings.
One attendee did an abundance of research about the “lack”of female staff on the HHHS board, to which Nelson responded that the board is comprised of elected directors (six male and five female); a female CEO, a female chief of staff, a female chief nursing officer, a male president of medical staff, and two community reps, who are both female.
When asked if there were any intentions of re-opening the Minden ED, Nelson paused before responding. “Right now, we don’t have enough staff,” she said. “We are actively recruiting staff.” When asked how she is going about filling some of those spaces right now, Nelson said that her main priority is to listen to the needs of the staff. “I want to make sure they have the tools they need at their fingertips to be able to deliver the care they need, when they need it.”
Nelson reiterated multiple times that she is new to the role, and she cannot speak on behalf of the decisions that were made prior to her start date. She did outline that she is adamantly working on the “overall culture” of HHHS facilities in hopes that this improves recruitment efforts.
As emotions continued to rise as Nelson tiptoed around the concept of re-opening the ED, the acting CEO stole a moment to herself to collect her emotions. While this slowed some naysayers down, it acted as an opening for others to jump on, and continue hammering home the want for the Minden ED to open.
Nelson will be hosting the second HHHS town hall on July 25 in Dysart at the Haliburton Legion at 5 p.m..