Published on February 25, 2019

September 15, 2017

By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press

Unable to keep pace with patients acutely ill with mental health disorders who sometimes wait days in overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, London’s largest hospital has asked the province for millions of dollars to staff an extra 24 beds in its psychiatric ward, The Free Press has learned.

The crisis has reached epic levels, not only at the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) but in hospitals across Ontario whose ER waits this summer reached the highest recorded levels since the province began measuring delays nine years ago.

“What we’re seeing in London, we’re seeing across the province, and it’s even worse in some (hospitals) in the GTA,” LHSC chief executive Murray Glendining said .

“We are seeing unprecedented ER levels for this time of year.”

The London hospital, Southwestern Ontario’s largest, wants enough money to staff an extra 24 psychiatric beds in a facility that has funding for 74 beds, an increase of 32 per cent.

In the meantime, LHSC has been robbing from Peter to pay Paul, taking as much as $4 million from elsewhere in its budget to staff additional psychiatric beds.

“We are spending significantly more for mental health beds than in the budget or (what we spent) in the past,” Glendining said.

The plea for cash from Ontario’s Liberal government comes more than three years after ER struggles became front-page news when some mentally ill people were found sleeping on ER floors in London, some waiting as long as a week for a bed in the psychiatric ward.

MPP Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative health critic at Queen’s Park, said the Liberal government “has rationed care so much” that hospitals can’t meet the demands they face.

“We’ve almost hit a point where hospitals are begging,” said the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP, adding the need to boost mental health resources extends beyond hospitals to community supoorts as well.

“When there’s a lack of support in the community, people have no other choice but to seek help at our emergency rooms,” he said. “We’re stuck. People get discharged (from hospital), only to return hours later.”

London isn’t alone raising the alarm — earlier this week, the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) did the same, warning ER waits already at an all-time high for the summer would only worsen unless Ontario’s Health Ministry intervenes before the traditional surge of psychiatric patients that come towards year end.

“Many hospitals have operated through the summer under very unusual and worrying surge conditions,” said OHA president and chief executive Anthony Dale.

“The evidence strongly suggests that even with the 2017 budget announcement, further investments are urgently needed this fiscal year . . . to ensure timely access to services for patients.”

While summer has traditionally been a time when fewer patients need a hospital bed, both Victoria and University hospitals in London were flooded with patients: At least one of the hospitals, and usually both, had more patients in beds than the hospitals had funding for between August 28 and Sept. 8, data provided by LHSC show.

But while overcrowded ERs draw headlines, problems there reflect more systemic challenges that need to be addressed, Glendining said.

Too often, patients ready for discharge from an acute care bed can’t leave because there is no safe space to send then, he said. While part of that is the result of obvious issues such as a lack of long-term care beds, the problems extend beyond health care itself, including a lack of affordable housing and social supports to help those with mental illness be self-sustaining.

“(Hospitals) are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “We don’t have enough affordable housing or social supports. It’s probably one of the No. 1 issues in London.”

Glendining said he believes Ontario’s health ministry understands the bed crunch and hopes it will cough up additional funds in the fall, as it did last year.