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LETTER: Group Health calamity can't be fixed with 'government platitudes'

Steelworkers unions released an open letter today to Premier Doug Ford, demanding answers over GHC's decision to drop more than 10,000 local patients
20200526-Group Health Centre summer stock-DT-03
Group Health Centre. Darren Taylor/SooToday

SooToday received the following open letter to Premier Doug Ford regarding the recent announcement that the Group Health Centre would be dropping another 10,000 patients from its roster. As SooToday reported this morning, Mike Da Prat, the president of United Steelworkers Local 2251, says many of the de-rostered patients are the very same steelworkers who helped found the original Group Health Centre.

Dear Mr Ford:
Re: De-Rostering of 10,000 Patients by the Group Health Centre In Sault Ste Marie

As you are no doubt aware, the Group Health Centre in Sault Ste Marie recently announced that effective May 31, 2024 it will remove 10,000 patients from its roster due to the retirement or resignation of some of its physicians with no replacements available. This means that these patients will have no access to primary care as they will have no physician and will not even be able to use the centre's same day clinic. This is unacceptable.

A brief history of the Group Health Centre. In the late 1950s the United Steelworkers in Sault Ste Marie noted that many of its members did not have access to primary medical care or, if they did, were spending a significant amount to access that care. After some research, they discovered the Group Practice of Medicine
being used in the United Kingdom. This seemed to them to be a solution to this situation. They canvassed their members who agreed and many were willing to put up the money, via payroll deduction, to fund the building and equipping of a medical centre. In 1963 the Centre opened. Shortly thereafter, the Centre agreed
that all those who had paid the establishment fee would, upon retirement, receive medical and surgical care without charge. This was well in advance of such being offered to senior citizens by the province. No wonder why Roy Romanow in the 2002 Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada touted the Group Health Centre as a model of comprehensive health delivery that should serve as an example for the rest of the country, as noted by Carly Weeks in a recent Globe and Mail article.

It is particularly noteworthy that a view of the records shows that the Medical Centre was in fact ”a pre-paid direct service group practice." The members of the Steelworker Unions that agreed to payroll deductions to build the Group Health Centre were actually members of the Group Health Association, not just sponsors. The historical documents show that retirees were to receive full health care benefits free of cost for the rest of their lives.

The announcement from the GHC de-rostering 10,000 patients without regard to their original status as founding members of the Group Health Centre annuls the commitment made to the founding members at the time that they agreed to the pre-paid direct service group practice.

This disadvantages the most vulnerable people in our society when they most need medical care as they agreed to join the Group Health Centre in the 1960's and 1970’s. And yet, here we are today with 10,000 people (and possibly 6,000 more soon according to Group Health Centre authorities) imminently facing the same situation that Steelworkers and their families faced over sixty years ago. Now one may say that they no longer have to pay for access to medical care but sadly they do because they have not stopped paying their taxes which is supposed to guarantee them accessible, comprehensive, universal, portable and publicly administered health care. Plus, increasingly, there is no health care, at least ongoing primary health care, to access. Again this is unacceptable.

Please do not view this as simply a letter of complaint. We are requesting a resolution to the crisis that is occurring not only in Sault Ste. Marie, but in many northern, remote and isolated areas, towns and municipalities where people reside.

The government's platitudes regarding commitments to improving health care in Ontario will not remediate the problem. What we need is affirmative action now.

In professions and occupations where a drastic shortage of professionals and skilled workers exists, the governments of the day relied on immigration. We believe the immediate solution to the crisis in health care delivery in Ontario is the use of immigration to obtain healthcare professionals. Health care professionals
should include Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, Nurses. We understand that there are task forces and meetings taking place to address this matter. Those initiatives will address inefficiencies in the future. Our need is immediate. It cannot be that no care is better than health care professionals that are not Canadian certified at the onset.

On July 24, 2023, a local news outlet quoted a spokesperson for the Group Health Centre as stating “over the past 6 years, approximately 2800 patients have been de-rostered due to a shortage of primary care providers”.

As stated earlier in this letter, the Group Health Centre announced that 10,000 patients were being de-rostered as of May 31, 2024 for the same reason. The Group Health Centre also stated that a further 6,000 are also at risk.

The total number of de-rostered patients when the 6,000 at risk are added in represents 26% of a population of 72,051 citizens of Sault Ste. Marie without primary care providers.

This significant shortage is critical and will certainly overload our hospital emergency department, which will probably result in potential closures of that department. The closest emergency room is in Sudbury, which is 4 hours away.

We request that the Provincial Government in conjunction with the Federal Government dispatch recruiters abroad in an attempt to recruit health care professionals. Offers of recruitment should identify that opportunities exist in northern or remote locales. Applicants would be required to service the community for a specific period of time.

The Government should assemble a panel of professionals to expedite the ability of Health Care Professionals to practice immediately in Canada. One alternative would be that these Health Care Professionals would be part of a mentorship program.

We the undersigned members of the United Steelworkers and its retirees are writing to you and your government to take immediate action to address this dire situation facing the citizens of Sault Ste Marie. This is a crisis and must be treated as such.

Michael Da Prat, President USW Local 2251
Rebecca McCracken, President USW Local 2724
Hans De Feyter, President USW Local 9548
Marc Ayotte, USW Area Coordinator
Burnie Thorp, President SOAR Chapter 6-17

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