Ontario health minister won't join call for inquest into Hamilton hospital suicides

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins responded to questions from Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, saying the coroner's office operates at arms length from the government.

'When ... tragedies occur again and again, families deserve answers': Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath asked Ontario's government to join her in calling for a coroner's inquest at Queen's Park on Monday. 4:02

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath brought her call for a coroner's inquest into suicide deaths at a Hamilton hospital to the Ontario legislature on Monday.

Horwath spoke at Queen's Park of the 11 suicide deaths among patients at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton since the beginning of 2016 and asked the government to support that call.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins responded on behalf of the government, saying it is up to the coroner to call an inquest, not the government.

"Families of loved ones who need mental health care should be able to expect that their loved ones will be safe … and receive excellent care that gives them every chance at recovery," Horwath said.

"When that doesn't happen, and tragedies occur again and again, families deserve answers."

Health minister: Inquests are at coroner's discretion

Hoskins said he wanted to "express my deepest sympathies" to the families of those who have "regrettably and unfortunately lost their lives in this way."

"No family should have to endure the pain of a loved one – a family member, a friend or a colleague — whose life ends in suicide," he said.

But he said the chief coroner alone decides when to call an inquest. He said it's important to keep that discretion up to the coroner, with arms-length independence from the government.

"It's important to know that the coroner and the coroner alone has and retains that right to decide upon and begin an inquest," he said. "It's entirely at his discretion."

Inquests are called by a coroner after some deaths to make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future. A jury can make recommendations to authorities to implement to prevent such deaths, but the recommendations carry no obligation. 

'We miss him terribly, every day'

Horwath recently held a press conference calling for the coroner's inquest with the family of Daniel Reale alongside her. 

Reale, 58, died by suicide while an inpatient at St. Joe's West 5th campus, the region's mental health specialty hospital, in June. The family supports the call for an inquest.

Denise Skowronnek held a photo at a press conference last month of her brother, Daniel Reale, who died by suicide while an inpatient at St. Joe's West 5th campus, the region's mental health specialty hospital, in June. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

"Dan was a very humble, kind man who loved his family dearly," said his sister, Denise Skowronnek. "We miss him terribly, every day."

He died just a few months before his first granddaughter was born.   

St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton president David Higgins previously said the facility is committed to preventing suicide by all possible means and has already made information available to the coroner's office. 

Reale died about three weeks before St. Joe's administrators announced their goal of making suicide a "never event."

In July, the hospital released recommendations from an external review they'd commissioned by a psychiatrist specializing in suicide studies and a former regional supervising coroner.

Not all of the suicides happened within the hospital's walls. Some took place while patients were out on day passes, and others were individuals who'd been seen as outpatients.

They commissioned the review after there were nine suicides by patients in 2016. There have been two more this year, Reale included. Many of those changes have implementation deadlines for this fall.

'What any potential investigation or inquest might find'

At Queen's Park on Monday, Horwath said she hopes an inquest would lead to more resources for frontline staff and funding for hospitals, after hospitals have faced millions of dollars in cuts in recent years.

Hoskins said that he, unlike Horwath, was "not going to prejudge or pre-assume what any potential investigation or inquest might find."

Hoskins said a task force assembled in 2015 has recently completed a report of recommendations for suicide prevention in hospitals. He said that document is now being circulated to hospitals across the province.