Hamilton hospital adds help for children with complex needs through new Ontario pilot program


Published March 9, 2023 at 3:48 pm

Ontario cabinet ministers Merrilee Fullerton and Sylvia Jones came to Hamilton to announce a pilot program aimed to benefit children with extensive needs, but there was vagueness about how it will fit with the Ontario Autism Program waitlist — and staff shortages across the health-care sector.

The announcement today, at the Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre at McMaster Children’s Hospital, was for a three-year, $97-million pilot program called the Integrated Pathway for Children and Youth With Extensive Needs. The program will be based at MCH and two other pediatric hospitals — Holland-Bloorview in Toronto, and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa. The program, which is funded jointly through the ministries of health, and children, community, and social services, will help around 1,100 children and youths. Around 300 will receive “wraparound” supports at MCH. The program is expected to launch next month.

Fullerton, who was a family doctor before entering elected politics, said a multi-ministry effort is something she has long advocated. She said it is possible some chidlren with autism will be part of the integrated pathway program, but did not give a number. The provincewide waitlist for autism therapy has grown from 23,000 children to 60,000 across the last four years under the Premier Doug Ford-led Ontario PC Party government.

“People are complex, especially children,” Fullerton said. “When we (the Ford Government) created the Ontario Autism Program, we listened to all the groups. For this, we have listened to all the groups — that’s why we’ve created a comprehensive program. This is another program that is a multidisciplinary, comprehensive approach. There is no doubt in my mind that there are children with autism who will be part of this.

“I commend the groups involved for doing something different from the status quo,” Fullerton added. “This is a step in the right direction.”

A pilot program is created in order to develop what is called “proof of concept” before it is taken up provincewide. Along with Jones, who is the deputy premier and health minister, and Fullerton, the CEOs of the participating pediatric hospitals on hand, including Hamilton Health Sciences CEO Rob MacIsaac on behalf of MCH.

“This funding will help these children access a web of services instead of having to navigate between ministries,” MacIsaac said. “This will ensure our most vulnerable pediatric patients are not left behind. With the collaborative care we do, we’ll have real-time learning taking place, that can improve collaborative care and develop the proof-of-concept.

“We are very grateful to the ministers coming today for the investment in this region and this project,” MacIsaac added.

There will be some virtual delivery of the program in order to expand the program outside of the province’s three largest cities, Fullerton said. The funding is split about 60-40 between Health and Children, Community, and Social Services.

‘Nothing like this in Canada’

Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital president and CEO Julia Hanigsberg added that an Integrated Pathways program will help children with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and/or behavioural and mental health issues, receive therapy and supports “before behaviours come entrenched and affect families.”

Alex Munter, the CEO at CHEO up in Ottawa, related that the program would make it possible for a pediatric hopsital to form “multidisciplinary teams” of health-care specialists and social workers.

“This is important in terms of wrapping care in order to help children, youth and families,” he said. “With this we’ll be recruiting child and youth councillors, behavioural specialistcs, recreation therapists, speech-language pathologists, and so on. We are able to form the most diverse group in terms of the professions we can represent that we have ever had.

“This may be too inside baseball, but some of those professions are historically more funded by one ministry, some are historically more funded by the other. With two ministries and pooling resources, we are that much more stronger. There is nothing like this in Canada.”

The spectre of the OAP waitlist and the province’s underspending on health care was raised at the media conference.

NDP: Autism families at ‘their wits’ end’

Hamilton Mountain MPP Monique Taylor, who is the Ontario New Democratic Party’s children, community and social services critic, also told inTheHammer there should be reasonable doubts about the province’s follow-thorugh on autism services.

“While I welcome any initiative that could make life easier for children with autism and their families, when it comes to the government’s ability to provide support services for autism — I’ll believe the impact when I see it,” Taylor stated in response to e-mail questions.

“This week, the Ontario Autism Coalition joined me at Queen’s Park precisely because the government has broken their trust,” Taylor added. “Waitlists for the Ontario Autism Program have more than doubled since Premier Ford took office (in 2008) and parents are already at their wits’ end waiting for support.

“There is already a dire shortage of development service workers — who will staff this program when McMaster (Children’s) Hospital frequently is forced to operate at 100 per cent capacity? Adding more programs will only be effective if those programs are fully funded, fully supported, and publicly available.”

Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer (FAO) reported Wednesday that the province is on course to be $21.3 billion shy of the funding needed for long-term care, home care, and hospitals by 2028. The FAO arrived at that conclusion by analyzing the Ford government’s health-care promises.

The FAO said last month that the Ford goverment will underdeliver by about $20 billion in promised spending by the 2024-25 fiscal year.

The newer analysis also found Ontario will need 33,000 more health-care workers to keep pace with the demands that an aging general population will place on the sector. The Ford Government is planning to allow health-care workers from other provinces to immediately start practising in Ontario. But it is also appealing a court’s striking down of Bill 124, the law that imposed real-dollar pay decreases (a 1-per-cent increase, below inflation) on public employees, including nurses.

Many nurses have left the public sector to work for agencies where they are paid more, but hospital networks have increased overhead due to the agencies’ billing.

“With as-of right (rules to allow out-of-province nurses), we are making sure we are building out the number,” Jones said at the media conference.

“We’re doing multiple things to make sure we are training, encouraging, and making sure we can have people come to Ontario to practise here as nurses and personal support workers.”

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