A local family physician says it will be a "total disaster" if the Children's Aid Society of Hamilton loses its medical and dental clinic at the end of June.
Dr. Michael Mills sees patients at the clinic at 26 Arrowsmith Rd., which serves the 620 children in CAS care. The CAS has cancelled the clinic beyond June because of recent funding cuts from the provincial government.
That means children with complex needs will fall through the cracks, Mills said. About 400 of them don't have family doctors, and walk-in clinics don't provide the sort of consistent care the children need.
"For us to lose the support of primary care services here would be a total disaster," he said.
The province has cut $4.7 million over the next five years from the CAS's annual budget of $50 million. In the first year, it will amount to a $2-million loss.
That means cutting 70 staff and a number of services not directly involved in dealing with children in care, including the clinic, said executive director Dominic Verticchio. The clinic also offers orthodontics.
"The 620 children in our care have very high medical needs, very complex needs, and that clinic has really assisted in terms of being able to provide comprehensive treatment," he said on Wednesday.
Family doctors in Hamilton are too overwhelmed with existing patients to take on the complicated cases of many of the children in CAS care, Mills said. Many of the children struggle with physical and mental illness.
The highest risk children in Hamilton
Mills said some of the children have immunization records comparable to children in third world countries. And the local wait for a pediatric specialist — which requires a referral from a family doctor — is about 18 months.
The clinic is also important for McMaster University's family training program, he said.
Dr. Anna Kittler works at the clinic one day a week. These are the highest risk children in Hamilton, she said.
"We see a complete turnaround in children who have been unmanageable, who have been unfocused at school but with the right medical attention become focused in school," she said. "They become kids who are thriving."
Some other Ontario CAS's, including Toronto, have medical clinics. The Toronto CAS is not cancelling its clinic, spokesperson Rob Thompson said Thursday.
The CAS of Hamilton established the clinic about seven years ago. It costs about $250,000 per year to run, not including OHIP billing, said Ingrid Hauth, director of family services.
The Ministry of Child and Youth Services is aware that Hamilton's clinic will close, said spokesperson Breanne Betts in an email. Many societies use health care providers to service kids, and the clinic closure is Hamilton's decision.
"CAS's have funding flexibility and are responsible for making decisions that achieve efficient and effective service delivery models," she said in an email.
As for the government, "our commitment remains firm: we will not put kids at risk."
Funding to the CAS of Hamilton increased by more than $8 million since 2003, an increase of nearly 22 per cent, Betts said. In the same time period, service volumes decreased.
The ministry has also cut two per cent of the $26-million budget for the Hamilton Catholic Children's Aid Society.
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's Medical Officer of Health, will bring a report to city council on what the cuts mean to public health services.