Some hospital officials in downtown Montreal are worried about a change in how the health system treats homeless people.

Until now, the Montreal Health Agency had an alternate-care program in place, where hospitals on the island each took turns — on a weekly basis — taking in homeless people who need care to treat mental illnesses.

But starting now, the city’s homeless will be transported to the nearest hospital instead — a system that will overcrowd downtown hospitals, officials say.

It would be us in 50 per cent of cases,” said Paul Lesperance, the head of psychiatry at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM).

“In downtown Montreal, there are at least 3,000 severely ill people who need to be treated.”

Lespérance says the new plan will put too much pressure on downtown institutions like Notre-Dame Hospital.

“If I have a patient coming in, where am I going to put him? I already have ten people waiting — where does he go?” Lespérance said. “I think it’s a really bad decision.”

Lespérance says officials agree that designating one hospital every week to take in homeless patients is not ideal, but the 10-year-old program should continue until a better one is adopted.

“We also want the system to end. Most psychiatrists and chiefs of psychiatry in Montreal have the same opinion, but we need to do it in an orderly fashion and not through improvisation. We don’t need more improvisation in the health system,” he said.

A temporary measure

The Montreal Health Agency says this new protocol will only be in place for the winter.

“The decision was taken in the context of extreme cold. It’s a temporary measure for the winter months — for January and February,” said Patrick Murphy-Lavallée, the director of programs and services at the Montreal Health Agency.

“The homeless might need more acute services...they might have frostbite and need to be taken to the closest emergency room to get the acute care they need.”

The agency says that by transporting homeless patients to the closest hospital, it will also be easier to follow them after they are discharged.

Murphy-Lavallée says the agency will keep a close eye on downtown hospitals to make sure they don’t become overcrowded.

“We are going to follow the situation very carefully. We will work with the CHUM to help alleviate the pressure, and if there are adjustments that need to be done, we will make those adjustments.”