A Toronto woman who has been bedridden for nearly 11 years due to an illness says she has been unable to attend medical appointments since the city's emergency medical services recently began phasing out non-emergency transfers. 

Liisa Lugus suffers from a severe form of myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that has left her unable to sit up in a wheelchair or even sit at the side of her bed without experiencing transient paralysis and intense pain. It also affects her speech.  

As recently as 2013, Toronto Emergency Medical Services transported her on a stretcher to medical appointments several times a year, she says.

Lugus noted that during her most recent calls last year, dispatchers asked more questions, required more specific details about where she was going and why, and seemed more reluctant to send a paramedic. 

"Now when I try to call they say: 'We can’t service you,'" Lugus said. "I’m hoping to just raise some awareness because the service just silently disappeared."

'We just don't have that capacity anymore'

Kim McKinnon, a media liaison and spokesperson with Toronto EMS, told CBC News that until about 10 years ago, non-emergency transfers made up nearly 50 per cent of all transfers. Currently, less than 10 per cent of paramedic-assisted rides are for non-emergency transfers.

Non-emergency transfers have been slowly phased out as overwhelming demand from an aging population has forced Toronto EMS to reallocate resources to high-priority emergency calls, says deputy chief of EMS communications Gord McEachen.

"We've had to reassign those paramedics and that fleet to do emergency calls first. We just don’t have that capacity anymore," he said.

Toronto EMS currently receives about 800 calls a day for patients requiring urgent medical attention, a number that has increased three to four per cent annually for the past decade, according to McEachen. 

High costs

McKinnon says that they have not received a formal complaint from Lugus regarding her transportation, and that a number of private services exist for the purpose of providing patients in need with rides to medical appointments.

Gord McEachen

Toronto EMS deputy chief of communications Gord McEachen told CBC News that the service simply does not have the resources to continue providing frequent non-emergency transfers to patients. (CBC)

Lugus says, however, that she can’t afford to regularly use private carrier services, which can cost up to $120 each way depending on the distance. The provincial Ministry of Health charges patients $45 for a trip with city paramedics — a price that does not accurately reflect what it costs Toronto EMS to provide non-emergency transfers, McKinnon said.

Currently, the public can access an official EMS non-emergency transfers page online, last updated in 2012, through a Google search. The page provides information on the program and a phone number that patients can call to arrange transportation. 

The page, however, does not appear to be immediately accessible via the main EMS website

An election issue

David Lepofsky, chair of Accessibility Alliance, says the province introduced the Disabilities Act in 2005 for the purpose of ensuring patients in need have access to necessary medical care, but has failed to make that promise a reality. 

"Our health-care system was never designed to fully accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. That’s why we need to tear the barriers down," he told CBC News. 

Lepofsky says his organization wants to make access for people with disabilities in Ontario a key focus of the ongoing provincial election.

As for Lugus, she needs to visit a dentist in the coming weeks, but doesn't know if she'll make the appointment. She says she is considering filing a human-rights complaint if she in unable to get the care she requires.  

With files from the CBC's Lucy Lopez