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Queen's Park moves to take control of Niagara hospitals

Photo By Ruth Bonneville Emma Ongsansoy, Technologist at the National Microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg, examines a plate of c.difficile through a Bio Safety cabinet. March 9, 2007

Ruth Bonneville/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is taking control of the Niagara hospital network, which is at the centre of controversy over a deadly superbug outbreak and its restructuring.

"This has been an accumulation of issues that have arisen over the past many, many months, if not years," Health Minister Deb Matthews said after she announced on Monday that she has recommended to cabinet that a supervisor be appointed for the Niagara Health System.

The system's six hospitals have had 31 deaths linked to the superbug Clostridium difficile since May. However, the authority was already embroiled in controversy. The minister said her only criticism of how the outbreak was handled was communication with the public, but that she has separate concerns about interaction with patients and financial issues.

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She said her reasons don't include the closing of emergency departments in a restructuring within the network, which serves 434,000 people. Debate erupted after The Globe and Mail reported last year that an 18-year-old died while being taken to a hospital with an emergency department after a car accident. The ER at the nearest hospital had been closed. The shut-down of two emergency rooms was later reviewed and subject of a probe by the ombudsman.

Earlier this year, the chief executive officer resigned abruptly amid renewed calls for the appointment of an independent investigator.

Ms. Matthews said she made the recommendation now because she has become aware of a lack of confidence within the community.

Now that she has given mandatory notice to the board, she can appoint a supervisor in two weeks once her recommendation has received cabinet approval. Ms. Matthews said it's too early to say who will be appointed or how long the supervisor, who will lead the system and report directly to her, will be needed.

Paul Leon, chair of the board of trustees, said the board will work with whomever is appointed.

"Getting a fresh pair of eyes in to look at our plans is what she wants to do," he said. "We're preparing to be as co-operative and collaborative with the supervisor … as we possibly can be."

The minister said having the government exert such control, which it did in Windsor last year, is rare. "I think this might be the 18th time," she said.

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Members of the opposition say a supervisor should have been appointed long ago.

"The minister herself is the last person to figure out that there's a crisis of confidence in the Niagara health system," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, adding she's heard residents' concerns for years.

Asked if her decision should have come earlier, Ms. Matthews said "20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing." There had previously been progress within the system, she said, so she didn't make the decision earlier.

Christine Elliott, health critic for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, also said the decision is overdue.

"This is something that should have been done months ago," she said.

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