Ontario’s health minister now admits a “gap” has left Ontarians in medical distress stranded abroad, no longer blaming insurers but instead looking for their help to fix it.
“As you are likely aware, there have been several instances where insurers have been delayed in repatriating Ontario residents following accident, injury or medical concern while travelling outside Ontario,” Helena Jaczek wrote in a letter to the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association obtained by Postmedia.
“I take these cases very seriously and would like to work with our insurance companies to look at ways to improve. . . . I would request your support in convening a meeting in the coming weeks with insurers to discuss the issues they are facing in finding appropriate medical care for patients returning home.”
One of those issues appears to be this: Private insurers are barred from accessing a database that tracks open beds at provincial hospitals.
When patients in Ontario hospitals suddenly decline in a facility not equipped to manage their conditions, doctors can phone Criticall Ontario, which then matches patients to open and appropriate beds.
But that same system is out of reach when Ontarians fall ill or sustain injuries abroad, even when they’ve bought travel health insurance.
“Use is limited to Ontario hospitals and health care stakeholders,” a Criticall Ontario official wrote in an email to Postmedia.
Those stakeholders are limited to acute and psychiatric hospitals in Ontario and the agencies that oversee health care in each region, called local health integration networks.
Asked why the database has been off limits for Ontarians abroad, including a London man, Stuart Cline who died in an Ontario hospital after a five-day delay in a Mexican hospital, a spokesperson for Jaczek admitted there are “gaps” that need to be closed.
“It’s clear that there is a gap in the way that travel insurance companies locate beds in Ontario — that’s why we are going to take a close look at exactly what happened here, and where communication between insurers and Ontario’s hospitals can be improved,” Laura Gallant wrote.
Barred from accessing Criticall Ontario, insurers have instead been forced to plead from help from individual hospitals, the health ministry and the 14 regional agencies in Ontario that oversee health care, say families whose loved ones have been stranded.
Insurers are further constrained because they’ve been told they can only seek hospital beds within a specific region or catchment area, Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek has said.
Jaczek’s call for collaboration contrasts with how the Liberal government first responded to the death of Cline, who died in a St. Catharines hospital after being stranded for five days in a Mexican health facility. Government leaders said then a private insurer was responsible and suggested it had not done enough.
Delays and deaths have raised concerns on two levels: What are barriers that strand Ontarians abroad even when they have travel insurance, and do those barriers include chronic underfunding of hospital beds?
The Kathleen Wynne government insists there are enough beds, and that when an insurer sought to move Cline home, there were 16 critical care beds available in the London region, and while many were at smaller community hospitals, there was also space at University and Victoria hospitals in London.
London Health Sciences Centre says its hospitals have been in what officials call “escalation” mode since Jan. 6, meaning they won’t accept patients from other hospitals in the region unless it’s deemed a matter of life or limb.
Overcrowding at Victoria and University hospitals has become the norm, with occupancy rates routinely higher than funded capacity levels, a bed jam found at many major hospitals across Ontario, hospital officials say.