April 02, 2014

Northern hospitals seek $9 million from County

As published in The Erin Advocate

The small hospitals in Fergus, Mount Forest and Palmerston have made a joint request for $9 million from the County of Wellington, to cover much of the “community” contribution needed for major improvements.

During a preliminary debate at a special meeting of County Council on March 18, the only members to speak out against the contribution were Erin Mayor Lou Maieron and Councillor Ken Chapman. They said taxpayers in Erin, and other southern parts of the county with high property assessments, would pay a greater share compared to the northern municipalities where much of the funding would be spent.

The contribution would be in addition to the $5 million already being provided for the new Groves Hospital in Fergus. If eventually approved by council, Groves could get another $5 million, with $2 million going to each of Louise Marshall Hospital in Mount Forest and Palmerston and District Hospital.

“It’s a political decision,” said Warden Chris White. “There’s no roadmap here. There’s no requirement to do this.”

Projects at the three hospitals of the Wellington Health Care Alliance have been promised funding by the Ministry of Health, covering 90% of construction costs. With the added costs of new equipment, they actually need about 30% funding from the community, including fundraising in the areas close to the hospitals. 

Wellington North Mayor Ray Tout made an appeal on behalf of Louise Marshall Hospital.

“This hospital was built 50 years ago and we outgrew our emergency department a long time ago,” he said, noting that it has taken ten years to get the funding now being offered by the province. The community will need to raise an additional $5 million to complete the project.

“As we live with the reality of an aging population, our hospital visits in Mount Forest are expected to increase by 1,200 people in 2014. If we’re going to attract new doctors, if we’re going to provide better service for good healthy living for our residents, then we must provide a better emergency working atmosphere.”

Councillor Chapman said, “I don’t believe the county can afford $9 million,” calling the hospitals “special interest groups”.

The hospital request is not in the budget. The funds would likely come out of reserves, which total close to $70 million, with payouts possibly spread over several years. Chapman noted that County Council was not willing to use reserves to reduce the 2014 tax increase to less than 2.2%.

“Hospitals are about quality of life, but it is not spread equitably throughout the whole county,” said Mayor Maieron, who has long complained that the province’s property assessment system is unfair, assigning a greater share of county costs to southern municipalities including Erin, which have higher property values.

He points out that municipalities in the north part of the county (Minto, Mapleton and Wellington North) have almost the same combined population (29,800) as those in the south (Erin, Puslinch and Guelph Eramosa, with 30,179). Yet the south pays 46.8% of county expenditures and the north pays 24.7%.

“I’m going to have a hard time looking my residents in the eye and saying we’re going to generate some revenues for the local hospitals, but we’re going to send it to these hospitals that you don’t frequent. That’s going to be a bit of a problem, because I come back to our original quality of life, and how are we at the county going to improve the quality of life for all the residents in the county.”

Councillor Chapman said he expects 1,000 new homes to be built in Erin during the next five years.

“We will need a future family health clinic, a medical facility to serve our community,” he said. “If we are not willing in the future to fund all medical facilities in the county, I don’t see why we should do these.”

There is a Family Health Team in Erin, but no hospital, so patients needing hospitalization are most often treated outside the county, in Orangeville, Georgetown or Guelph. The Mount Forest and Palmerston hospitals are near the Wellington border, and serve non-Wellington patients from municipalities to the north and west.

Health care funding is not a municipal responsibility, and Council would have to change its current policy in order to make this contribution. Ward 2 Councillor John Green said the tradition for more than 30 years has been that the county would shoulder a large share of the required community contribution for hospital projects.

“There’s no place in the county that is over 20 minutes from a hospital – that’s not bad,” he said.

The current request will go to the Administration, Finance and Personnel Committee for further discussion, then come back to the full council for a decision.