Premier Brian Pallister says some hospitals in rural Manitoba will be closed or converted into personal care homes as part of the Progressive Conservative government's plan to reform health care.

The province is dealing with an aging population, some rural communities are shrinking, and people who could be in a personal care home are instead in hospital in some cases, Pallister said in a year-end news conference Thursday.

"A lot of beds are being taken — I don't like hearing seniors referred to as bed-blockers, but that's the phrase that's being used out there," he said.

"So we know part of the solution is [personal care homes], but we also know part of the solution is better care available to people so they can stay in their own home, too."

The Tories promised in last year's election campaign to fast-track the construction of 1,200 personal care home beds. They promised in last month's throne speech to enhance home care services.

The Opposition New Democrats accused Pallister of backing away from his health-care promises.

"Closing rural hospitals isn't what Manitobans voted for," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in a written statement. "We need Pallister to do more than give with one hand by taking with the other."

'Politics shouldn't enter into the facts'

Pallister's announcement didn't come as a surprise to Keith Lundale, health chair for the Rural Municipality of West Interlake, who says the province has already been in touch about the possibility of closing the emergency room at either the hospital in Eriksdale or the hospital in Ashern.

"We were basically told that they were going to look at making some sites transitional sites and some acute sites, where the ER would be located in order to maintain 24-hour ER service," said Lundale, who adds he'd assumed the changes would have been announced publicly this fall. "I'm working very hard to keep both ERs open in both Ashern and Eriksdale because we really think they can complement each other."

Lundale says in the case of a medical emergency, the role of the ERs at both Eriksdale and Ashern is to stabilize the patient and then get them to hospital in Winnipeg. If one of the two ERs close he says it could mean patients spend more time on the road instead of in care.

"The fact is we need to get these people to Winnipeg in a timely manner," he said. "Politics shouldn't enter into the facts about how we get that done — but it does."

Lundale says he's hearing the same concerns he has over the proposed changes from those in his role in other regions of the province as well.

"We'd all like to hold onto what we have," he said. "Change I don't mind, but it has to be good change and effective change that's going to make a difference to how people are cared for in the rural [areas].

"If it doesn't, I'll be very concerned and I'll be fighting it tooth and nail."

Details to come out soon: premier

Kinew told CBC News hospital closures hurt communities in more ways than one.

"If you close a hospital or you close an ambulance station in a community, not only do you remove the health care from that community but you can also impact the long-term viability of a town," he said.

"If there's less services in a community, less physicians, you know, less health care in a town, that may lead seniors to want to move to a bigger centre where they can access those services and it probably scares young people away from putting down roots if they know that there's that sort of pull-out from communities happening."

Details of the rural hospital changes will be released in the near future, Pallister said. The move follows recent changes in Winnipeg that included the closure or conversion of three hospital emergency departments.

At the same time, Pallister said he remains firmly committed to cutting the provincial sales tax before the next election, slated for October 2020. He also said he will run in that election to seek a second term.​

In a statement emailed to CBC, Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said after 12 months of research, the Wait Times Reduction Task Force will release its report next week.  

"It does not recommend any specific closures," Goertzen said in the statement.

"Earlier this year, our government announced that Shared Health would lead the development of a provincial clinical and preventive services plan. This work includes a review of rural health services and planning. Shared Health expects to provide this analysis to government in late spring 2018." 

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story attributed comments sent in an emailed statement to a provincial spokesperson. In fact, the comments should have been attributed to Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
    Dec 14, 2017 4:42 PM CT
With files from CBC's Sean Kavanagh