Manitoba

'It's not broke': Municipality questions rural emergency medical station closures

Some municipal officials criticized the provincial plan to close 18 emergency medical stations in rural communities Tuesday at the annual Association of Manitoba Municipalities meeting in Brandon.

Province says it's hired 13 new rural paramedics

The Manitoba government announced in June it plans to close 18 emergency medical stations in rural communities to improve service delivery and response times. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The Manitoba government says its plan to close more than a dozen emergency medical stations will make for more nimble paramedic teams that are quicker to respond to emergencies in rural Manitoba, but not everyone understands that rationale.

"I am not totally convinced," Coun. Judy Swanson (Boissevain-Morton) said at the annual Association of Manitoba Municipalities meeting, where provincial and municipal politicians gathered Tuesday in Brandon.

"It's not broke. We have a good ambulance system."

Judy Swanson is a councillor for Boissevain-Morton. (CBC)

In June, Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced plans to shutter 18 emergency medical stations in an effort to consolidate services and improve paramedic response times in some rural communities.

Some stations with low call volumes will close, and five new EMS stations will be built and staffed with full-time paramedics. Ambulances will be strategically placed in some areas to better access a broader base of communities, Goertzen said in June.

But members of some municipalities, including Grandview and nearby Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation (Valley River), have decried the move and fear closing the doors to local emergency buildings will only hurt communities.

"It is always an emotional issue. That's natural when it comes to health," Goertzen said from the AMM meeting in Brandon. 

The effective, timely delivery of services in rural areas doesn't require an emergency medical station in every town or community, he said.

"The issue isn't about bricks and mortar, it's about paramedics," Goertzen said.

"Those stations, those bricks and mortars don't pick themselves up and respond; it's the paramedics who are in an ambulance who show up and give that service. So we want to make sure that those paramedics are there and it doesn't matter the garage that an ambulance might be in before it gets deployed."

The closures are part of the province's continued efforts to transform Manitoba's health-care system.

Province fills 13 paramedic positions

On Tuesday, the province announced 11 full-time paramedic positions — four in Carman, four in Morris, three in Gladstone — and two part-time positions — in Gladstone — were recently filled.

Stations in each of those communities are staffed 24/7, unlike some rural stations that are only open 12 hours a day, Goertzen said in a statement. The province plans to add more paramedics to rural areas.

If we don't have an ambulance, you know what that's going to cost us? A first responder.… I don't think that's fair.- Judy Swanson

The chief executive officer of Southern Health-Santé Sud applauded the province for filling the positions.

"Paramedics are able to provide a high level of care and a broad range of skills to patients including ensuring people are able to breathe, providing life-saving medication and caring for wounds. That care continues as a patient is transported to the nearest facility able to provide the required level of care," Jane Curtis said in a statement.

"We're pleased the region has been able to hire these staff to support stronger emergency medical services for Manitobans."

'Very different than the cities'

Swanson said she understands the need to improve issues within the health-care system, but she chalks up the EMS closures to a misunderstanding of what life is like for rural people.

"Our areas are very different than the cities, so our roads are different, our weather conditions are different," The Boissevain-Morton councillor said.

"The proposal is that it [an ambulance] may or may not be sitting at the junction of [Highway] 3 and [Highway] 10, or it may be in Killarney, or it may be in Deloraine, which is another half hour away. So, people are saying, 'Well what's wrong with keeping our ambulance where it is?'"

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen was in Brandon Tuesday for the annual Association of Manitoba Municipalities meeting. (CBC)

Goertzen has said the closures and revamping of rural emergency medicine and paramedic services aren't about reducing costs. In fact, he believes it could cost 10s of millions more overall.  

"This will be an additional cost, for sure. It's about finding efficiencies ... but it's not about reducing costs if this will be an additional cost."

Goertzen has not released details of how much the ambulance changes will cost, and Swanson says that, too, is a problem because her constituents can't come to an informed opinion.

"We do also need to know going in what this is going to cost the ratepayers, what this is going to cost us," she said.

"If we don't have an ambulance, you know what that's going to cost us? A first responder.… I don't think that's fair."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

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. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Sean Kavanagh