Montreal

Despite overcrowding issues, many beds at Montreal's university superhospitals are empty

In the midst of an ongoing overcrowding crisis in Montreal's emergency rooms, the city's two university superhospitals still aren't making all their beds available. The hospitals say it's a funding issue, but Quebec's health minister says it's primarily a labour shortage problem.

Quebec's health minister says labour shortages are the cause

The Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal opened in 2017. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Several years after opening, in the midst of an ongoing overcrowding crisis in Montreal's emergency rooms, the city's two university superhospitals still aren't making all their beds available. 

The exact reason for the unused beds depends on who you ask. The hospitals say it's a funding issue, but Quebec's health minister says it's primarily a labour shortage problem.

At the end of 2019, there were over 70 unavailable beds at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), out of a total of 772, Radio-Canada has learned. Another 22 beds were not available for use at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), out of 500 in total.

In a written response to Radio-Canada's questions about its unused beds, the CHUM said the empty beds are only 85 per cent funded.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said a labour shortage is the source of the problem. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

An MUHC spokesperson said that when the hospital opened in 2015, funding existed to make 471 beds available out of 500. Since then, new funds allowed the opening of seven additional beds: two in palliative care in early 2018 and five critical care beds in 2019-2020.

But Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said on Thursday that staff shortages are at the root of the problem.

"If we didn't have a labour problem," bringing the hospitals to full capacity would have happened faster, she said. 

Whatever the explanation, critics say it's a problem that should not exist.

"Either they're amateurs, or they're really cheap," said Jean-Lesage MNA Sol Zanetti, Québec Solidaire's spokesperson for health and social services.

"We paid billions to get beds. We've got overflowing emergency rooms, specifically because of a lack of beds. And here we have unused beds, which we're not funding although there's a $4-billion surplus. It makes no sense."

'It's not normal' to have empty beds when hospital overcrowding is an issue, said Paul Brunet, president of the Quebec Council for the Protection of Patients. (Radio-Canada)

In recent weeks, the occupancy rate of stretchers at the two hospitals has exceeded 100 per cent. 

Emergency rooms in Montreal and around the province are perennially overcrowded. In January, with holidays adding further complications, many ERs were running at double capacity. Nurses, complaining of exhaustion, staged sit-ins at two hospitals in Montreal's east end.  

Former health minister Gaétan Barrette, now a Liberal opposition MNA, says he is surprised that beds are not yet operational at the CHUM.

"I would have expected, years later, that they would have reached full capacity," he said. "There's a shortage of rooms in the greater Montreal area, and these beds could have been used."

Paul Brunet, president of the Quebec Council for the Protection of Patients, had similar criticisms.

"It's not normal that we continue to have unused beds when we have such high occupancy rates for stretchers and long waiting lists for a bed," he said.

McCann believes that the two superhospitals will gradually resolve this problem, and for now isn't putting a deadline on making the beds available.

"I am confident it will improve," McCann said.

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Davide Gentile and Daniel Boily

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