Mayors concerned, frustrated with lack of consultation on changes at hospitals

The plan to temporarily reduce services at the 12 hospitals is part of the province’s COVID-19 surge response plan and its aim is to ensure the system can handle any spikes in cases, while keeping those who live in care at the facilities safe.

Local leaders are refuting claims made by the SHA saying they were consulted on hospital closures

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says it will continue with its plan to decrease services at 12 rural hospitals to ensure COVID-19 capacity is adequate despite concern and frustration raised by some local leaders. (Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada)

The temporary closure of emergency services at 12 rural hospitals has some rural mayors "at a loss."

Last week, elected officials in the Town of Arcola penned a letter to Premier Scott Moe detailing their anger and frustration at the closure of the emergency services at the Arcola Health Centre.

The letter, raising concerns about ER access, proper consultation and lack of notice about the changes, was sent following an emergency council meeting held after the town's emergency services were temporarily shuttered on May 14 by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).

The plan to temporarily reduce services at the 12 hospitals in three phases is part of the province's COVID-19 surge response plan and its aim is to ensure the system can handle any spikes in cases, while ensuring those who live in care at the facilities are kept safe.

Council sends letter to Moe

However, Keith Erick, Arcola's Mayor, claims in the letter the SHA is putting potential COVID-19 patients "ahead of current emergency patients in Arcola, the surrounding municipalities and the 2 First Nation Reservations that use our health facility."

The letter notes: "You are putting many more lives at risk with this plan and we urge you to reconsider, or at the very least, explain how you came to this conclusion." 

The fact the town's council was blindsided by the move is frustrating for Arcola resident Jackie Van Dresar. 

Her little girl was treated by staff at the hospital when she was having a seizure back in October. Van Dresar said she wouldn't have known what to do if she wasn't able to carry her daughter to the nearby hospital, as the next nearest ER is roughly an hour away.

"It's a little bit alarming," she said.

Jackie Van Dresar and her daughter, Harper, can be seen sharing an embrace in this supplied photo. Van Dresar said she was shocked to hear the Saskatchewan Health Authority is temporarily suspending emergency services at the Arcola Health Centre, as in October, the staff cared for her 13-month-old daughter as she was having a seizure. (Supplied/Jackie Van Dresar)

Van Dresar says the fact elected officials in the community weren't made aware of the changes is just one more reason the province should reconsider its decision, as the hospital is a lifeline for the community. 

"They should let us be heard and actually try to understand what we're saying and why we're concerned," she said.

She feels had community leaders been involved in the planning, they would have been able to outline how essential the services were to the province, which could have resulted in a solution that works for both parties.

Saskatchewan Health Authority's CEO Scott Livingstone said the changes were discussed with local leaders and were announced weeks ago, noting the SHA will be closely monitoring cases as the province's reopening plan continues. 

"We'll have to jump on those outbreaks and that may change the types of services we are able to offer to the community based on how we're managing COVID surges throughout this period of time," he said. 

'Off-the-cuff remark' not consultation: Leader Mayor 

The communities of Leader, Biggar and Oxbow are all next on the list to have their services change. Provincial officials said discussions around the closures have already taken place with local leaders. That's a statement Craig Tondevold, the mayor of Leader, takes issue with.

He said while he recalls a brief discussion with a representative from the SHA about the plan, he wasn't asked for any feedback, noting it was his understanding the change would only take place if needed.

"I don't think it's necessary. If we haven't got an issue, why would we be changing?" he asked. "That's a lot of money and expense to go through."  

Tondevold said if the phone call he had with the SHA representative is what the province considers being included in planning, he and the SHA have a very different definition of consultation.

"They may think that an off-the-cuff remark about doing this is consultation, where I don't," he said. "That seems to be a big problem with this government. They say they consult but they really don't consult. They talk about something and then that's it and then they go down their path they want to go." 

Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, told reporters this week that the announcement about the changes was made weeks ago and discussions had already happened with local leaders. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Oxbow Mayor got info from social media, not province  

The Town of Oxbow is also set to undergo changes at its hospital. Its mayor, Bob Goodward said he found out about the details of the changes on social media after concerns were brought to his attention by a ratepayer. 

"I was surprised by that because we've had no contact at all," he said. 

He said while discussions may have happened internally between SHA officials in the community, none of the conversations involved the town or its leadership. 

"I knew nothing about it until I saw it on Facebook," he said. 

Goodward said he and the town's council should have been looped into the plan much earlier, as they're the ones who understand the community's healthcare needs. 

"We're going to be very disappointed in the decision and I think there's already people who are sending emails to Scott Moe to say: 'What's going on and why is this happening?'" he said. 

On Sunday, CBC Saskatchewan reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Government of Saskatchewan for a response to the letter of concern and the frustration voiced by mayors, but in an email government official's indicated the response from the SHA's CEO Scott Livingstone has not changed despite the new concerns.

This isn't the first time the Government of Saskatchewan has been criticized about the level of engagement around its pandemic planning, as many groups the province claimed it consulted with around travel restrictions in Northern Saskatchewan said they were never part of the planning process.

Service changes at the Oxbow, Biggar and Leader hospitals are set to take place in the coming weeks.