Manitoba

Association decries WRHA move to axe occupational therapy director

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has cut the position of regional director of occupational therapy, formerly held by Marlene Stern, prompting concerns from the Manitoba Society of Occupational Therapists.

'Sincere disappointment' after Winnipeg health authority cuts occupational therapy manager

The Manitoba Society of Occupational Therapists says it is extremely disappointed after the elimination of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's director of occupational therapy position. (ALPA PROD/Shutterstock)

An association representing occupational therapists in Manitoba says the Winnipeg Regional Health authority has made a disappointing decision to cut an important occupational therapy position — and it will affect the health of Manitobans.

"We are just surprised and shocked by the cuts," said Heidi Garcia, a board member with the Manitoba Society of Occupational Therapists. 

"We are receiving all of the information about these cuts at the same time the public is. There has been no consultation."

The College of Occupational Therapists of Manitoba said the position of regional director for occupational therapy has been cut by the WRHA. The position was previously held by Marlene Stern and as of Thursday morning, her contact information was still listed on the WRHA's website.

"The [Manitoba Society of Occupational Therapists] board of directors would like to express our sincere disappointment in the deletion of the [WRHA's] occupational therapy regional director position," Alana Maertins, a registered occupational therapist and president of the society, said in a statement.

"These cuts will have a major impact on the health and well-being of Manitobans."

'There doesn't seem to be a plan in place'

The move comes amid allegations from other health-care workers and professional organizations that the Pallister government is moving to privatize certain services, including outpatient physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

The WRHA plans to move in-house patient physiotherapy and occupational therapy services out of hospitals and into private-practice clinics by mid-October. The move is expected to save the health region $5 million between 2017 and 2019.

"The biggest concern we have is ... there doesn't seem to be a plan in place for the shift of services," said Garcia.

Private insurance providers often don't cover occupational therapy, she said, so she worries vulnerable people will no longer be able to afford the service.

"A lot of people, then, if they require additional occupational therapy, will be required to pay out of pocket," Garcia said.

'Difficult decisions had to be made'

The changes are all part of the WRHA's broad belt-tightening measures. It hopes to save $83 million in its budget to meet a cost-saving mandate handed down by the provincial government.

"To fulfil the mandate to achieve $83 million in savings, some very difficult decisions had to be made," a WRHA spokesperson said in a statement.

"Other jurisdictions charge a fee for these outpatient services. The region will continue to provide outpatient physiotherapy and occupational-therapy services at no cost to vulnerable individuals who cannot pay. As well, specialty clinics — such as the spinal assessment clinic, the amputee clinic and the neuro clinic for stroke patients — will not be charging any fees."

Maertins said the association is especially worried by the removal of the position when other allied health professions have retained similar management jobs.

There were more than 4,000 occupational therapy visits logged between April 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017. More than 730 patients were assessed during that time.

There are currently more than 670 practising occupational therapists registered in Manitoba. A spokesperson said Manitoba Society of Occupational Therapists doesn't track therapists working in the private sector.

Full coverage of health cuts in Manitoba

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Bryce Hoye

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Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Jill Coubrough