Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) was “just one step away” from temporarily closing one or both County emergency departments with very short notice more than 20 times last summer, CEO Carolyn Plummer told Minden Hills council last week.

Plummer and board chair David O’Brien asked to attend the April 27 Minden Hills council meeting as a delegation. Later in the day, they met with County council behind closed doors.

HHHS announced on April 20 that it would be consolidating all ER and acute care at the Haliburton site effective June 1.

Plummer described how they had asked nurses more than half way through very long shifts if they could go home to get a few hours of sleep, and then return to commence a second shift to avoid an ER closure. She said they inevitably said ‘yes’ as they did not want to be responsible for an ER being shut down. Plummer called it, “a huge weight to carry on their shoulders.”

She said that had been the case for 18 months and “staff can’t go on like that.” She said HHHS needed to give them clear direction on an ER plan going forward.

O’Brien also clarified that it was the hospital services board that made the “operational decision” based on staffing, with HHHS management supporting it.

Mayor Bob Carter said HHHS may believe it consulted with the townships and County but, “we did not hear what you thought you were telling us.” He said they may have discussed temporary ER closures in the past but “at no point was there a discussion that one of these facilities would have to close permanently.”

Plummer said heading into the summer, HHHS was facing multiple, short-term, shortnotice, unexpected closures of one or both sites, which posed a risk to the community. She said some of the closures could have occurred with just two hours’ notice.

Deputy mayor Lisa Schell pushed Plummer and O’Brien on the 20-plus near misses, asking which ER was under threat of temporary closure. Plummer said it was the Haliburton site.

Carter asked if they would consider pushing back the June 1 date, to Nov. 1 or later. However, Plummer and O’Brien indicated they would not.

County weighs in

Following HHHS’ meeting with the County, the upper-tier government said in a press release, “council remains extremely concerned and dissatisfied” in the decision and its timing.

“We also continue to be disappointed in the absence of communication between County council, the community and HHHS over the last number of months while this step was being considered.

“We will continue to advocate on behalf of our residents to ensure that HHHS responds to questions about reorganization and ongoing service delivery in the County, including identifying and attracting services to work out of the Minden site.”

It went on to say council will be asking HHHS to present its implementation plan at a special meeting in May.

“Council has voiced a willingness to advocate with upper levels of government for improved financial resources to ease pressures and help with the implementation of improvements. We will also continue to review how our EMS (emergency medical services) and community paramedicine programs can assist, as well as how they may be impacted.”

The County said HHHS has agreed to involve them in the completion of their operational strategic plan as well as working on the capital master plan due to be finalized this fall.

“Council is committed to ensure that effective health care services continue to be provided to all residents of Haliburton County and the visitors we welcome.”