Moreen Miller, board chair for Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare (MAHC), says the Board of Directors is in “a rock and a hard place” trying to satisfy all of Muskoka.
“I think the board has tried to be innovative, [Cheryl Harrison, president and chief executive officer of MAHC] has tried very hard to bring a new model forward,” said Miller after the Tuesday night meeting in Bracebridge. “The community here tonight didn’t accept that and that’s something we have to take back to the drawing board and continue to work on. It is very hard to lead change and I can’t help but feel somehow responsible that we haven’t done the right thing.”
Whether seated inside or standing outside, a crowd of hundreds turned up for the second-to-last of the eight initial community chats scheduled by MAHC to discuss its proposed “Made-in-Muskoka healthcare system.”
The meeting was held in the Sportsplex’s auditorium and was limited to 300 people to comply with the fire code.
When the doors opened, the room quickly filled up and reached capacity before the scheduled 7 p.m. start time. Two uniformed Ontario Provincial Police officers stood in front of the door and were tasked with turning people away. Fire Chief for the Bracebridge Fire Department Scott Granahan was on hand to support the officers with crowd control.
MAHC set up a television in the hall leading to the auditorium for those who couldn’t get a seat inside. One resident set up a stream on social media that was being watched by close to 900 people when viewed by the MyMuskokaNow.com newsroom.
Once the meeting started, Cheryl Harrison, president and chief executive officer, spent about 30 minutes detailing what MAHC is proposing for the Huntsville District Memorial Hospital and the South Muskoka Memorial Hospital in Bracebridge.
As part of her presentation, she featured a fact sheet explaining what the hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville have today and what they are projected to look like with MAHC’s current proposal.
Harrison explained after hearing from the Ministry of Health that their previous “status quo” plan was going to be 50 percent over the nearly $1 billion budget set for it, MAHC was forced to develop this plan in Oct. 2023.
A question-and-answer period followed the presentation.
Mayor of Bracebridge Rick Maloney, along with his council colleagues and a handful of town staffers, were on hand for the meeting. He said the proposed plan “misses the mark” and has “raised a lot of concern and fear” from many in South Muskoka.
“There is far too much at stake to not get this right,” he said. “60,000 permanent and seasonal residents of South Muskoka are depending on it.”
Maloney suggested MAHC not rush the process to submit an “unsupported” plan. “For those that say we can’t delay, I say we cannot afford the risk of submitting a plan that is wholly unsupported,” he continued.
Parry Sound-Muskoka MPP Graydon Smith, who was the mayor of Bracebridge in 2015 when MAHC proposed only one hospital be built, was the last person to speak during the meeting.
“It feels a little time-crushed,” he said of the current plan.
Smith agreed with Maloney and suggested MAHC take more time to listen to feedback, adding he will do the same.
“We remain committed to finding the best solution to quality healthcare in Muskoka,” said Miller after the meeting. “If that means we need to go back to the drawing board to find another solution that fits within the budget and that all the communities can be happy with, we’re happy to do that.”
Miller says the Board of Directors is set to review and potentially submit the proposal in the spring. However, with Maloney and Smith’s comments in mind, she says they may delay submission and rework their proposal. Miller adds it would add another “two to three years” to the project and they may lose their spot in Infrastructure Ontario’s queue, noting they’re not the only healthcare project on the list for funding.
“I’ve already started going to bat for that,” said Smith.
Erin Ariss, a registered nurse and president of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), attended the meeting. She called what’s being proposed “egregious.”
“It is critical that residents have these services close to home, and that, for instance, a labouring mother is not forced to drive to another facility on a snowy, dangerous night,” she said. “ONA and its members will work with this community to take every action to save their services because their health and possibly lives will depend on it. We will not give up.”
Harrison said during the meeting that two-thirds of the around 300 childbirths a year in Muskoka are handled in Huntsville
“What we would like to see from administrators and hospitals across Ontario is to advocate for their communities to keep healthcare locally rather than moving them great distances apart from their families putting them at risk,” said Ariss, adding the province should be better funding projects like this.
Many medical professionals spoke about their concerns, citing low staffing levels, future recruitment suffering, travelling between the hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville being difficult for some, and moving obstetrics (childbirth) services to Huntsville.
It echoes what Dr. Rohit Gupta and Dr. Scott Whynot said last week.
Miller said a meeting has been scheduled with MAHC’s credentialed staff association on Feb. 20.
“We’re trying our very best to do the right thing for Muskoka,” added Miller.
MAHC’s last scheduled community chat is Wednesday night in Port Carling. It follows seven other in-person and virtual meetings, including one in Gravenhurst, where the “Made-in-Muskoka healthcare system” was detailed.
Miller suggested there’s a possibility more meetings, specifically in South Muskoka, could be added.