Nfld. & Labrador

As Health Accord review continues, Burin Peninsula mayor warns against drastic service cuts

Residents of the Burin Peninsula are nervous about upcoming recommendations from the provincial health advisory team, concerned that any changes could decimate health-care services in the area, says a mayor from the region.

'How do we fight something if we don't know what we're fighting?' says Marystown Mayor Brian Keating

Marystown Mayor Brian Keating says people are worried that health services will be removed from the Burin Peninsula. (Eastern Health)

Residents of the Burin Peninsula are nervous about upcoming recommendations from the provincial health advisory team, concerned that any changes could decimate health-care services in the area, says a mayor from the region.

Marystown Mayor Brian Keating told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show reductions could mean the end of CT scans and bring changes to emergency services and day surgery at hospitals on the Burin Peninsula.

What's most frustrating, according to Keating, is that nobody exactly knows yet what the Health Accord team will recommend to the provincial government. 

"Really the direction they're giving us is no direction. They're actually giving us organized confusion," Keating said. "How do we fight something if we don't know what we're fighting?"

The 25-person team, which recently met with municipal leaders on the Burin Peninsula, is tasked with coming up with a 10-year plan for the future of health care in Newfoundland and Labrador while keeping the province's fiscal situation in mind. The team has been holding consultations in communities across the province.

Keating, who also chairs the Joint Council Health Accord Review Board for the Burin Peninsula, said changes would affect the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence, the Dr. S. Beckley Health Centre in Grand Bank and the Burin Peninsula Health Care Centre.

Keating says helicopters were unable to service the Burin Peninsula for 250 days last year due to weather conditions. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Keating said virtual health care, which could replace some in-person services, won't work on the Burin Peninsula, which has spotty cellphone and internet coverage in areas.

What's more, said Keating, increasing air ambulance services to redirect residents to hospitals in nearby St. John's also won't work. Helicopters were not able to respond to the region for 250 days last year due to weather conditions, he said.

Population decline

The Health Accord team says it's not recommending taking any services from the Burin hospital but, in a statement to CBC News, the group said it's "deeply concerned about the sustainability of services which have very low numbers" such as obstetrics and in-patient surgery.

According to the group there's been a serious population decline on the Burin Peninsula: about 35 per cent since 1990 — including a 71 per cent decrease in the number of children — with another nine per cent predicted by 2030.

The group also found that hospital occupancy in Burin was only at 53 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

To strengthen the health of residents living on the Burin Peninsula, says the Health Accord statement, the region needs a community team to which every person and every community living there is attached.

"This team brings together family physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, OTs [occupational therapists], physios, pharmacists, and elder-care workers," reads the statement. 

Keating says hundreds of people have been diverted to hospitals in St. John's, such as the Health Sciences Centre. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Health Accord's statement also says the peninsula needs a more integrated ambulance system with advanced care paramedics.

For virtual-care plans, the group said the Burin Peninsula does need broadband coverage for the entire region to help connect members of the community team and ensure smarter use of virtual care.

"Consequently, we believe that the Burin and Clarenville hospitals need to work closely together to address this concern," Health Accord N.L. said.

Keating points to commercial activity in the area — such as a mining project in St. Lawrence, fish plants and a salmon hatchery in the Marystown area — that he hopes will bolster population growth.

"The government is talking out of both sides of their mouth. We're trying to grow and they are trying to say, 'Well, we don't think you're going to succeed,'" said Keating. 

Keating also said he thinks the hospital data doesn't accurately reflect the need on the Burin Peninsula, because people needing health services are often sent to St. John's when they could have doctors nearer to home.

Eastern Health told CBC News it's "committed to delivering the most appropriate care to meet residents' needs," and there are many reasons why patients who live in rural areas may receive services at a location other than their nearest health-care facility.

The health authority said the Health Sciences Centre and St. Clare's Mercy Hospital in St. John's provide tertiary care for residents from across the Eastern Health region and throughout the province.

"This model of health care may require patients to transfer or travel to St. John's because the service, treatment or intervention that is required for the patient is only offered at the tertiary centre," Eastern Health said. 

"Patients are also sometimes seen in St. John's based on need and/or for personal reasons, for example, to be close to certain supports while undergoing treatment."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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