All County, All the Time Since 2010 MAKE THIS YOUR PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY HOME...PAGE!  Monday, July 15th, 2024

MPP Smith paints optimistic picture for local heath care

Todd Smith, far right, told seniors he was at the Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Education graduation for Picton and Belleville sites last week where 21 new PSWs are now ready to enter the health-care field. PSW program teacher Karen Mayer, far left, was also recognized as she will be retiring after 21 years at Loyola. – Todd Smith Facebook photo

By Sharon Harrison
Improved health care needs was the main focus of a virtual session for County seniors given by Bay of Quinte MPP Todd Smith who spoke about backlogs, fast-tracking medical professionals, long-term care needs, nurse practitioners, and the new Prince Edward County hospital.

“Health care has always been a hot button topic in Prince Edward County,” said Smith.

Hosted by the Prince Edward County Community Care for Seniors Association as part of its active living program, the free webinar was geared to provincial issues of interest specifically for seniors as part of seniors’ month.

Smith noted the County’s new hospital has reached the request for qualification stage, with tendering expected later this year for the state-of-the-art facility with 20-25 in-patient beds, an emergency department and clinical services.

“It’s going to be exciting to have that hospital for the community, and to be a key piece in our campaigns to attract and retain healthcare workers in the region.”

Smith acknowledged the significant healthcare needs in Prince Edward County, given the demographics and expected growth.

Todd Smith

He said the funding formula didn’t keep pace with the growing functionalities.

“They are often taking on additional patients who were without primary care or community supports, or waiting for a long-term care bed, and governments didn’t do enough to counter these trends, or plan for the aging population that we have, or are experiencing in Ontario.”

“We are facing front-line healthcare challenges as baby boomers are retiring across the province, and provincially, hallway healthcare and waiting lists that have grown over the last number of years and continue to grow, particularly post-pandemic.”

MEDICAL SCHOOL SEATS
About eight years ago, in 2015, Smith pointed out that Ontario cut the number of medical school seats available, and made it harder for doctors to practice in the team-based environments they are seeking.

“We faced a challenged as public sector wage expenses grew by over 50 per cent between 2001 and 2009 after a short period of moderation, and began to climb again,” he explained.

He said, early in their first mandate, they put together a plan to reinvest in the hospitals and build new hospitals.

“And instead of having to lay-off staff and cancel programs to balance the budget, small, medium and multi-site hospitals, received annualized funding increases that allowed them more stability.”

“Quinte Health’s operating funds moved from $155 million in 2017/18, to $200 million last year, so a $45 million increase since we took office for our hospitals that we operate, including Prince Edward County Memorial out of Quinte Health.”

He said 910 medical school seats will be added over the next five years, including spaces reserved for Ontario learners that would currently be going overseas to get their medical training, and often having a difficult time returning.

These medical school seats are spread right across Ontario, including about a 100 at Queen’s University.

“Again, our hope is these students that are practising medicine at Queen’s University will do their residences or their placements at places like PECMH, especially when we have that new hospital there which is going to be a state-of-the-art hospital, especially from a sustainability point of view.”

Smith said this aspect was important, since doctors often make life-long connections at their residency placements that keep them in the communities where they are doing their residency.

“We are funding post-graduate learning in rural areas, including at Quinte Health, and at Prince Edward Family Health Team as well.”

“We really hope that these investments we have made over the last number of years, really do start to bear fruit in places like Prince Edward County and the Bay of Quinte region.”

LONG-TERM CARE BEDS
Smith said they also committed to creating more than 30,000 new long-term care beds and developing plans for increased staffing and care to staff up those long-term care beds.

While Smith admitted some projects slowed down due to COVID-19, next week, minister of long-term care Paul Calandra, is to be in Belleville turning sod on Westgate Lodge.

“During COVID as well, we saw how the system was stretched, without knowing exactly what we were facing, we delayed care to preserve capacity and limited medical visits to preserve public health in many of our facilities, and these tough measures helped us, but also added to a care backlog that we have.”

Along with the investment to create 3,500 staffed hospital beds, Smith said new legislation has been created to move ‘alternative level of care’ patients out of the hospital faster to free beds at
the start of the largest training and recruitment campaign in the province in its history.

He states this plan will address shortages in public institutions, but also the growing shortage of primary care providers that is , and across Ontario, and globally.

ADDITIONAL PSWs AND NURSES
“Nearly 10,000 PSWs (public support workers) are going to work for us through our accelerated training programs that we have put in place,” said Smith, adding that just this past week he attended the graduation ceremony at Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Learning for the graduating class for Belleville and Picton programs where an additional 21 PSWs graduated.

An additional 2,000 nursing seats have been added in places such Loyalist College and colleges across the province, and the government has also started to promote careers in health care.

“We have seen record enrolment in health programs at Ontario’s colleges and universities, including at Loyalist.”

LEARN AND STAY GRANT
Another promising program, he said, is available at many colleges in under-serviced areas across Ontario, including Loyalist College, called the Learn and Stay grant.

“These candidates work in public healthcare in areas with high need like ours, so they commit to a five-year stint in the local area where they are trained and their tuition is free as a result of this program and Loyalist does have that for the nursing program.“

A program change made at Loyalist that Smith says should make a big difference in nursing in this area involves students remaining at Loyalist College for the full four-year program.

“No longer do the students do the first two years in Loyalist, then have to go to Brock University down in western Ontario in the Niagara region. They can now complete all four years of their nursing program at Loyalist College, so they can stay,” he explained.

“What was happening was the nurses were doing the first two years at Loyalist, going to Brock University in St. Catherine’s, and then getting a job there and staying there, so with the program now available for all four years at Loyalist, our hope is as these nurses graduate, they are going to go and work in places like Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital or Hospice Prince Edward, and provide home-care in our region.”

Smith said the program has also seen record enrolment, both at Loyalist and colleges across Ontario.

FOREIGN CERTIFICATION & FAST-TRACKING
Smith also indicated that regulators have been instructed to provide quicker access to certification, for those from countries with similar training standards.

This will help to improve paths to certification or other internationally-trained candidates, and prioritized healthcare workers through the Ontario Immigrant Nominee program (OINP).

“The rules that allow any Canadian licensed doctor to practice immediately in Ontario, and recently passed, it’s also going to increase the pool of candidates available.”

He said doctors from places like the United Kingdom, Ireland, the US and Australia would be fast-tracked into the system.

“I heard from the family members of individuals that have had young people go off to practice at the University of Melbourne or the University Edinburgh, and previously were finding it difficult to get back home and fill a much-needed position for primary care in our local region,” outlined Smith. “But they are getting fast-tracked now and there is still some work to go, working with the federal government making sure that happens fast, or faster because we do need people in our region now.”

LOCAL HEALTHCARE
Caps for doctors entering family health organizations, such as Prince Edward Family Health Team, have been removed, he stated, making it possible for additional doctors to access the lucrative team-based model and expand the number of communities they can go to.

“For example, working at places like Prince Edward County with the Family Health Team, working in a collaborative type of environment with nurse practitioners, RNs, PSSs, dietitians and mental health counsellors are located in one location conveniently located in Picton in this case, and potentially having a facility in Wellington as well.”

Smith said minister of health, Sylvia Jones, has been aggressively looking for initiative solutions to improve access to care. He said some of the other planks in that plan include funding additional nurses to help offload ambulances and emergency rooms faster.

“We are also experimenting with the 911 model of care that would allow paramedics to bypass the closest emergency department if there is a more appropriate location, long-term care or palliative centre or acute care hospital that is available.”

Smith said Ontario is also controlling the number of procedures and the amount that is paid for them, where he explained how clinics have to follow professional standards developed by the College of physicians and Surgeons, and Ontario Health.

“They are creating staffing plans to ensure they are going to be a complimentary piece, and there won’t be any cost to individuals… the old saying is, you don’t use your credit card, you use your OHIP card.”

He added that other provinces are already using this capacity, “with people without primary care, physicians are using virtual services, we’ve worked with the Ontario Medical Association and OMA doctors to ensure that they are getting that there in the relationship rather than one-off visits”.

He said, “more than ever, we also realize that the doctors aren’t the only practitioners that can provide primary care, and they can’t be, given the global shortages.”

NURSE PRACTITIONERS
Ontario is training an additional 150 nurse practitioners every year, where Smith said they can do a lot of the work that doctors are able to do, where their scope has been expanded, and this practice will be expanded to other healthcare practitioners.

Initially, $60 million was invested in 18 care teams, with the Belleville nurse practitioner-led clinic one of the first to receive the positive funding, and they will be going to add an additional 2.6 full-time equivalent nurse practitioners, an RN, a social worker and administrators.

“This is going to help 2,000 people in the Bay of Quinte region find primary care by the end of this year, and in the budget there were announcements of more funding to expand places like the Prince Edward Family Health Team,” declared Smith.

“The other thing that’s really important, a lot of people don’t require a doctor or a NP, for whatever it is they need treated, and recognize pharmacists can access and treat common ailments every day.”

As of January, 13 conditions can now be handled in a pharmacy by a pharmacist, including hay fever, dermatitis, common allergies, insect bites, pink eye, UTIs, cold sores, sprains and strains and hemorrhoids.

“That expansion of services at pharmacies was very, very well received, and another handful of conditions was added at budget time in April, so the more we can take pressure off primary health care system, keep people out of our emergency rooms only with those more common ailments that can be treated at a pharmacy, it’s only going to benefit us all.”

LONG TERM CARE
Smith said long-term facilities are going to be giving four hours of direct care per resident by 2025.

“We are increasing funding to provide that care and we are training the staff right now in accelerated PSW programs, and expanded nursing and medical programs to ensure we have the health human resources for those facilities.”

He said overall, Ministry of Health spending topped $75 billion last year, up from $58 billion just five years ago, “so overall healthcare increases have been quite massive over the last five years”.

One of the biggest pieces to healthcare is the growing concern particularly around mental health and wellness.

Smith also talked about the additional supports in place to provide wrap-around services and connections to care as part of the $3.8 billion roadmap to wellness plan that was rolled out in collaboration with the federal government.

IMPACT PROGRAM

One example that Smith said he is particularly proud of locally has been the widely-successful, IMPACT (Integrated Mobile Police and Crisis Team,) program, which started in Belleville and has expanded to Prince Edward County.

He explained how the program imbeds mental health workers with police and healthcare agencies which help stops repeat police interactions, and provides stability.

“One of the things I heard years ago was just the burden and the time it was taking for our men and women in the police service to answer mental health calls, and it was about 40 per cent of the calls that they received.”

There has also been a further investment of $4.25 million above the initial increases in the roadmap to wellness.

“We know mental health is a big issue in communities across Ontario, particularly post-pandemic, and we are putting more money into that.”

Laura McGugan, co-ordinator with Community Care said the organization works very closely with the IMPACT team in the County.

“I often go out with them if a senior is involved, so we do really have a great relationship and see the benefit of the program and are really happy to work with them,“ said McGugan.

DENTAL CARE
Seniors aged over 65 can also take advantage of publicly-funded dental care in our region, with individuals with incomes of $22,000 or under, and couples with incomes of $37,000, eligible for check-ups, repairs, x-rays, some oral surgery and other periodontic services.

GUARANTEED ANNUAL INCOME
“I know how important affordability is these days; everybody’s talking about it, it’s vitally important we know that it’s especially difficult during these inflationary times for low income seniors and we’ve significantly increased the guaranteed annual income system, it tops up the guaranteed income supplement.”

An additional 100,000 seniors are going to be able to access up to $166 a month and those payments are going to be indexed to inflation in the future, outlined Smith.

ENERGY PORTFOLIO
Smith, as Minister of Energy, also spoke to the energy portfolio, noting how busy the role has been.

“We are continuing to stabilize energy bills, and we subsidizing them unfortunately due to the bad contracts that were signed previously, particularly for over-market renewable projects. The subsidy right now is $6 billion and that’s so rate payers don’t have to bear the cost of above-market prices for subsidies.”

“As a result of providing that stability on the electricity file, and reducing the cost of doing business in the province by $8 billion year-over-year, we have seen massive, massive new investments in the province,“ outlined Smith. “That’s creating some pressures as well because as we see these multi-billion dollar investments, particularly in the EV auto sector, and EV battery sector, we are going to need more electricity, we are going to need more power.”

Smith said he has been working diligently with the independent electricity system operator and local stakeholders in Ontario to ensure they have the power needed in Ontario.

“Because of all of these investments, and the fact that we have been able to keep things more stable, we are going to have to continue to add new generation and new transmission in the province,” explained Smith.

“It is a good problem to have because as a result of our growing economy and increased revenues, while at the same time reducing the cost of doing business, and not increasing taxes, as a matter of fact, reducing taxes and fees, we have been able to see the budget for the province increase, so we have been able to make those investments in healthcare and education and mental health, and social programs.

Ontario’s budget has gone from $154 billion to $204 billion.

“We are making sure that we are continuing to invest and we also have a pathway to balance now,” he explained. “We expect to see a slight surplus in Ontario because of good fiscal management and the growth that we now seeing, we expect to see a surplus by next year. Of course, anything can happen at any time, but we hope to continue to see growth in our economy.”

Smith outlined how he is working very closely with federal government, and particularly the Minister of Natural Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, to ensure Ontario has a stable, reliable energy grid.

“That includes new investments in nuclear power that are non-emitting giant, giant producers of electricity for our province, they provide about 60 per cent of our electricity every day, out of places like Darlington, Pickering and Bruce Nuclear.”

He said it also allowed the government to embark on a small modular reactor program in Ontario where they are building the first SMR (small modular reactor) in the G7, where the 300 megawatt facility is to be located at Darlington and is supposed to be on grid by 2028.

When Smith became energy minister two years ago, he said he didn’t expect he would be travelling so much internationally in the role.

“I have been working with other countries that are looking for energy security and energy economy, particularly given what’s going on in Ukraine with the Russian invasion there,” he outlined.

“They have all been cut-off natural Russian gas, so they are looking for domestic technologies that they can deploy in their state and in their country in Europe in particular, and our SMR that we are building at Darlington at Ontario Power Generation is actually the one many of them are looking at.”

He indicated further that because the Ontario supply chain has such a long history of nuclear power in Ontario (there are about 76,000 people working in the nuclear sector in Ontario), it is good news as an export opportunity because of the modular technology with the SMR.

“We will be able to ship this around the world to places like Poland, one of the largest emitters around the world as they are entirely dependent on coal, and a bit nuclear, ironically from Ukraine, but they are very invested in our SMR project.”

With more announcements promised by Smith in the coming weeks on the seniors funding front, stay tuned.

Community Care for Seniors, a not-for-profit organization, has been helping older adults (aged 60-plus) live independently in Prince Edward County since 1977 offering an extensive range of services from hot meals, escorted transportation, recreation and social activities, among them.

Monthly active living programs change every month and include a range of programming, such as interesting talks, exercise programs, webinars, musical and arts activities and more. Check them out at communitycareforseniors.org, or call 613-476-7493.

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