A Highlands-based advocacy group, fighting for the reopening of the Minden emergency department, has filed requests for Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general to investigate the circumstances behind the hospital’s summer shuttering.

Minden Paper, made up of five local core team members and an advisory group of 10 to 15 others located across Canada, submitted its letter to the provincial watchdog Nov. 14. Spokesperson Jeff Nicholls, in an email to The Highlander, said it was the culmination of more than 9,000 hours of work by group members.

“We’re deeply concerned about Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) decision to close the Minden emergency department permanently – with six weeks’ notice,” Nicholls said. “We hope to raise our collective understanding of healthcare planning and provision so more people can help ensure key decision-makers understand the socioeconomic repercussions of these decisions, and the need for effective stakeholder consultation and governance.

“We believe the closure of the Minden emergency department serves as a microcosm for what’s happening across Ontario, if not the entire country,” Nicholls added.

The letter calls for the auditor general to investigate former HHHS CEO Carolyn Plummer and the organization’s board of directors’ financial management and decision-making processes, which Minden Paper believes played a key role in the ED’s demise.

The group questioned how the organization’s deficit grew from $220,000 in June 2022 to approximately $4.1 million as of the fiscal year-end March 31, 2023.

In previous interviews with The Highlander, Plummer said the bulk of that money was spent on agency nurses, which were needed to fill shifts and avoid temporary ED closures, predominantly in Haliburton.

The Minden Paper team also believes there are inconsistencies between statements made by HHHS executive and the board, and those of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott and health minister Sylvia Jones.

“Despite Jones’ characterization of the closure as a non-financial decision… there is a litany of discrepancies between [her and Scott’s] statements and HHHS board minutes, financial statements, stakeholder accounts, and news coverage, indicating a possible neglect of their oversight responsibilities,” the letter to the integrity commissioner reads.

Nicholls claims a freedom of information act request, submitted by the Minden Paper team earlier this year seeking the business case and decision details leading to the closure, was unsatisfactory. He said the business case was not included, and further claimed the information that was sent was heavily redacted.

“The closure of the Minden ED stands to affect the wellbeing and health of our community profoundly… the patterns reflected [in HHHS financials] and the subsequent closure appear to be symptoms of deeper financial and operational malaise,” the team states.

Officials respond

In an email to The Highlander, HHHS spokesperson Lauren Ernst said the organization is already assisting an ongoing investigation the auditor general’s office is conducting, looking at the state of emergency departments across Ontario.

“HHHS has actively been involved in this audit process… since August and looks forward to reviewing the report this winter,” Ernst said.

Michelle Renaud, spokesperson for the office of the integrity commissioner, confirmed receipt of the letter, but noted an investigation into a potential breach of the Members’ Integrity Act can only take place if a complaint is submitted by another sitting MPP. The commissioner cannot accept complaints or requests for investigation from the public.

Becky Fong said the auditor general’s office “carefully considers” all information when selecting and planning audits, including information submitted by the public, but noted, “we do not comment on specific details of information received by our office, or with respect to any planned or ongoing audit work.” When audits are complete, they are tabled in the Legislature and then made public, she said.

Hannah Jensen, speaking on behalf of Jones, didn’t directly address the Minden Paper group’s letters, but indicated the health minister had no input in the decision to close the Minden ED.

“While the Ministry of Health provides funding to hospitals, hospitals are independent corporations governed by their own board of directors who are responsible for their own day-to-day operations, including the decision of what services are provided in what locations,” Jensen said.

“Our government has worked with the Kawartha North Family Health Team to establish a new urgent care clinic at the site of the former Minden emergency department to continue to connect the residents of Minden to convenient care, closer to home,” she added.

Scott did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.