NDP decry Strathroy hospital cuts, eye health spending as key byelection issue

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STRATHROY – With Strathroy Middlesex General Hospital as a backdrop, NDP Leader Marit Stiles slammed the Ontario government for underfunding health care as she campaigned with her party’s candidate in the May 2 byelection.

The hospital has had its labour and delivery program shut down, forcing pregnant women to travel to London or St. Thomas for care.

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“No one should have to travel to a different town to give birth. Maternal health care needs to be a priority,” said Stiles, speaking at a podium set up in a parking lot across the street from the hospital on a cold, blustery Saturday afternoon.

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“People in rural Ontario have a chance to send a message, a strong message that we’ve had enough of this. We need attention and support urgently.” 

The leader of the Official Opposition was in Strathroy campaigning with candidate Kathryn Shailer. Health care is top-of-mind for voters in the community, Shailer said.

“What I’m hearing at the door is concern about underfunding of rural hospitals. It’s a big issue and it affects everyone in this riding,” Shailer said. “Rural communities have been dealing with budget cuts for years. Expectant mothers having to go to London and St. Thomas is unacceptable.”

Strathroy hospital officials said the reason for the shutdown is a steady drop in births over the course of recent years. It expected about 60 births by the end of March, its lowest ever total. In 2020-21 it had 87 births.

Birthing mothers once destined for Strathroy Middlesex General Hospital will be sent to London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria campus, a 40-kilometre drive, or to St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital, a 51-kilometre trek. Both offer a higher level of care, including paediatrics and neonatal intensive care if required, Strathroy hospital officials said in a statement.  

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“If we don’t fight now against the Ford government’s cuts to health care they will be emboldened to keep cutting,” Shailer said.

In August, the province’s independent Financial Accountability Office reported the provincial government spent $1.7 billion less than planned on health care in 2022-23 as rural and small-town hospitals struggled with staff shortages that forced some emergency rooms to periodically close.

The Doug Ford government had planned to spend more than $194 billion on all programs and fell short by $7.2 billion or 3.7 per cent, rolling out a total of $187.1 billion.

In a statement from a spokesperson for Ontario’s health minister, Sylvia Jones, it was noted the Progressive Conservative government is making “record investments” in health care, with more than $85 billion in 2024 alone.

That includes increasing hospital spending by four per cent for the second year in a row, the spokesperson said, and spending $44 million to “help emergency departments stay open,” including at smaller and rural hospitals.

But in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government is giving Ontario $3.1 billion in funding over the next three years to ease the health-care crisis in the province. That’s Ontario’s share of the $200-billion health accord offered to the provinces last year.

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Stiles believes more funding is needed for the Strathroy hospital to bring its obstetric unit back and she supports integrated health teams that would see, among things, doctors working with nurses and nurse practitioners to better deliver care.

“We will work with small, rural hospitals to get them funding and support they need,” Stiles said.

 Lambton-Kent-Middlesex is one of the largest ridings in the 10-riding London region. Without a single city, its major urban centres are the towns of Strathroy in the northeast and Wallaceburg in the southwest. The riding has been held by the Progressive Conservatives since 2011.

Shailer is running against Cathy Burghardt-Jesson for the Liberals, Steve Pinsonneault with the Progressive Conservatives, and Andraena Tilgner for the Green Party. There are also several fringe parties with candidates.

The byelection was made necessary when longtime Tory MP Monte McNaughton, a cabinet minister, exited politics for a career in the private sector.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from the office of Ontario’s health minister, Sylvia Jones.

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