Less than two months ago Grey Bruce Health Services pledged to host public engagement sessions this spring in order to allow residents to share their views and concerns about options being considered by the GBHS board, in their effort to find substantial cost savings in hopes of avoiding, or at least minimizing, projected deficits. In the weeks since, however, there has been no announcement of dates for those public input sessions, and at Monday's presentation to council GBHS CEO Lance Thurston indicated that there was no plan to host any at all.
“In terms of communications, we have opportunities for input up on the screen,” Thurston told council, along with the roughly 200 residents who attended the meeting, pointing to an email address and a phone line that had been established to receive community input. “We weren't planning for additional public forums for direct questions from the public, but if there is an outcry or a huge demand for it then we will certainly consider that.”
Thurston's comments were in stark contrast to a media release issued by the GBHS on January 18 in which they said, “The Board recognizes the importance of health care to our communities, and has re-confirmed that no decisions will be made on any of the options for reducing the deficit until internal and external stakeholders have been consulted. A schedule of public engagement sessions will be available in early Spring.”
With all due respect to Mr. Thurston, for whom I do happen to hold much respect, there were 200 people sitting in a church mid-day on a weekday to learn more about the proposed consolidation of surgical services – there's your outcry. There's your huge demand.
In my experience, you don't draw a couple of hundred people to a weekday council meeting unless people are worried about something, and this community is without doubt worried about the future of their hospital. The folks who attended Monday's meeting did so on short notice (the meeting was only announced the Wednesday prior) knowing that, because the meeting was a presentation to council, they would not have an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns, but I would imagine that many of them weren't bothered by the inability to speak, because just a few weeks ago they had been told that public engagement sessions would be held so their opportunity to speak was on the horizon.
After receiving the press release on January 18, I contacted the GBHS to confirm if there would be meetings held in the individual communities, or if folks would have to travel to Owen Sound to have their say, and the response I received was that, “we will have public meetings in all six communities where we have a hospital.”
That sounded reasonable to me, and it makes me wonder why the GBHS has shifted from their pledge to hold public engagement sessions in all six communities where GBHS hospitals are located to stating that they would only be held if there was “an outcry or huge demand”.
I think it's great that a dedicated phone line and email address have been established in order to allow the public a convenient, easy way to voice their opinions or share their concerns, but as we all know, engagement sessions that allow residents to voice those opinions publicly, with their friends and neighbours and the media present as witnesses to both the questions and the responses provide much more value to the public.
Well, to begin with, messages sent in by email or left by telephone are a one-way exchange. The messages submitted can be neatly accumulated, analyzed, and filed without any interaction with the public. It's a very clinical, sterile method of garnering public opinion. Furthermore, it's pretty darned pressure-free for those receiving the information, and it is no secret that public pressure is one of the most important tools in the toolbox for citizens.
Hosting public engagement sessions forces those with decision-making power to face some different realities than simply sifting through email and phone messages. Public meetings allow for the public to truly relay the emotions, the fears, the anger – or the support they feel for a specific issue.
Meaford's mayor is right to say that the GBHS should honour their previous pledge and host a community engagement session in order to allow the community to have their say on decisions that will be made that could have short-, mid-, and long-term impacts not only on their hospital, but on the greater community.
That the GBHS CEO appears to have changed his mind about hosting public meetings is disappointing. It suggests that the GBHS has something to fear by facing the public, and I personally don't think that's the case. The CEO makes a compelling case for the consolidation of surgical services, and it's a case that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but by pledging to host public engagement sessions, and then reversing that decision the GBHS board doesn't even give residents the opportunity to hear that compelling case, so for many, the anger and fears they are experiencing are combined with a lack of information and understanding of the issues.
To the GBHS board – if you can't keep your promise to host public engagement sessions, how can you expect the public to accept your assurances that losing surgical services isn't a first step to losing much more?