Horwath calls for review of Hamilton forensic pathology unit closure

Andrea Horwath is calling for a stop and review into the closure of the Hamilton forensic pathology unit. She says allegations show this closure could be "rooted in revenge."

Forensic pathologists found out about closure after they were witnesses in a complaint

Andrea Horwath is adding her voice to the others concerned with the closing of Hamilton forensic pathology unit, which she says is the second busiest in the province. (Colin Côté-Paulette)

Official opposition leader and MP for Hamilton Centre, Andrea Horwath, says that a "cloud of suspicion hangs over" the closure of the Hamilton forensic pathology unit. 

She's adding her voice to the concerns of union officials, forensic pathologists, and funeral home staff. 

Horwath is calling for a stop to the planned shutdown and a public review of the decision. 

"In light of very troubling new allegations that this closure could be rooted in revenge, I'm calling not only for the closure to be completely stopped, but also for a full, public review of this decision, and how it was made," she said.

CBC Hamilton reached out to the Ministry of the Solicitor General about the closure and the allegations.

The ministry responded that decision was not an act of revenge, but "an operational decision of the chief forensic pathologist and the chief coroner."

The Office of the Chief Coroner did not reply to CBC Hamilton's request for comment. 

A report by The National Post said that complaints have been launched against Ontario's chief pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen (pictured above) and Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The Hamilton Health Sciences forensic pathology unit at Hamilton General conducts around 1,300 medical-legal autopsies and investigations into sudden or suspicious deaths a year. Its cases were planned to be transferred to Toronto's more modern Forensic Services and Coroner's Complex.

A report in The National Post suggested that some staff believed this closure was related to a case with the Death Investigation Oversight Council.  

A former medical director of the Hamilton unit had submitted a complaint against Ontario's chief pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen, and Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer. 

According to the report, forensic pathologist Dr. Jane Turner sent a letter to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones alleging that Dr. Pollanen "interferes with other pathologists" and "[presses] them to change their findings in suspicious deaths." 

Forensic pathologists who worked at the unit were witnesses in this complaint. They discovered their unit would be shutting down one week after they testified. 

The report says that another Hamilton forensic pathologist, Elena Bulakhtina has filed a complaint against the two doctors for shutting the unit down. The National Post says that Pollanen and Huyer said the closure was already planned, but not announced because of "unionized employees" and "collective agreements." 

In its reply to CBC Hamilton the ministry said  "the government has confidence in [Dr. Pollanen and Dr. Huyer] to take the necessary steps to ensure a strong death investigation system in Ontario." 

Horwath called on the provincial government for a public review of the decision to close. (Colin Côté-Paulette)

Added pressure on families and funeral homes

Horwath said that this plan would put stress on grieving families in Hamilton and Niagara and would increase expenses for the police and the city. 

Calisto Del Fiacco, a funeral director at Friscolanti Funeral Chapel, agreed and said that the closure will mean additional planning for funeral homes. 

He explained that two funeral home staff are required to transport remains from the hospital. Using a forensic pathology unit in Toronto will mean they will have to travel to and from the city. 

The Hamilton unit currently covers cases in Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Norfolk, Brant and Dufferin. Del Fiacco said that funeral homes with less staff, or ones that are farther away, could be feeling the pressure as a trip to Hamilton is already a challenge. 

"It does change a lot of things," he said. "[Some funeral homes] only got one man...they'll start calling funeral homes closer to the hospital saying, can you give us a hand for 10 minutes? And now this?"

He said the other option is to use a transfer service, which would cost more money.  

He said that transporting loved ones from the hospital normally costs families around $300, but this change could mean a a rise in price because of the distance.  

In a press release from July, CUPE 7800, which represents healthcare workers, spoke out against the decision to close the unit and asked Ontario's health minister to overrule the decision. 

President of CUPE 7800, Dave Murphy said that the decision contradicts the strategic plan for Ontario's Death Investigation system, which emphasizes the need  "for more cases [to be] managed locally/regionally." 

The other forensic pathology units are in Kingston, London, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Sudbury. There are 7,000 coroner-order autopsies across the province each year. 

With Files from Colin Côté-Paulette