'You're picking on the sick people': patient, therapist question occupational therapy cut

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s plan to shift occupational therapy out of its hospitals and into private clinics is drawing fire from patients and practitioners.

Private cost 'would be 1,000s of dollars in order to get the rehab that they require,' therapist says

Carl Antymniuk wonders how he will manage to pay for occupational therapy after his insurance runs out. The WRHA announced an end to most in-house physiotherapy and occupational therapy is looming in October. (CBC)

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's plan to shift occupational therapy out of its hospitals and into private clinics is drawing fire from patients and practitioners.

"This just seems really wrong. You're picking on the sick people, and I don't understand that at all," said patient Carl Antymniuk.

Antymniuk had surgery two days ago for a hand injury and he's now getting occupational therapy at a clinic in St. Boniface Hospital.

In the past, he's had surgery on his back and both knees, all requiring after-surgery physical therapy.

It will take Antymniuk weekly visits over the course of many months to get his hand back in shape.

While Antymniuk has insurance that covers a certain number of visits a year, it won't cover the costs of all his care.

He said he thinks the privatization of occupational therapy will be "disastrous" for his physical care and his pocketbook.

"I have no idea how I will afford any of this," Antymniuk said. "I really think they need to rethink this.… This seems like the wrong cut."

Cost could reach $1,000s

Melissa Abrams, his occupational therapist, worries the health authority's plans will take a big toll on patient care, given the frequency of treatments they need.

"These patients are all seen for months — three months, six months — so the cost for them in the [private] system would be thousands of dollars in order to get the rehab that they require," said Abrams, a senior occupational therapist at St. Boniface.
Melissa Abrams, a senior occupational therapist at St. Boniface Hospital, says she wonders what the long-term effects of privatizing occupational therapy will be for Manitobans. (CBC)

She learned on Tuesday that her job and those of her colleagues will be "deleted," but her first thoughts were for her patients, she said.

In Abrams' opinion, there is no equal service in the private sector for patients recovering in the month after surgery.

Occupational therapists help patients perform daily tasks despite limitations caused by injury, disability or other factors, using assessment and intervention such as modification of living spaces and/or activities.

And while the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has said vulnerable people who can't pay for therapy will continue to receive care, it remains to be seen who exactly will qualify, Abrams said.

She's also concerned about the long-term effects of the changes on the system.

"Currently we rehabilitate patients so they can return to work, return to their functional daily activities.… What's going to happen to those people if they're not getting the services they need?" she asked. "Is there going to be a delay in return to work, in returning to be a productive member of our society?"

'Difficult decisions'

The health authority hopes to complete the shift to private clinics by mid-October and it expects to save $5 million over the next two years, officials said.

The authority is under orders from the provincial government to find $83 million in savings this budget year.

"To fulfil the mandate to achieve $83 million in savings, some very difficult decisions had to be made," a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokesperson told CBC News 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."

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.

Full coverage of health cuts in Manitoba