Approval of ‘game-changing’ Health Team expected any day now

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia-Lambton residents will soon benefit from the biggest overhaul in the delivery of local health care in more than 20 years, the CEO of Bluewater Health predicts.

Once set up, the local Health Team will give patients faster, easier access to the services they need, said Mike Lapaine, who also chairs its steering committee.

Mike Lapaine

“This is a huge game changer.”

Ontario health care currently relies on Local Health Integration Networks, or LHINs, to make decisions about funding allocations.

Local health-care providers, the hospital and community agencies have relied on the Erie St. Clair LHIN in Windsor to determine what services are provided, and their level of financial support, since 2007.

But the LHIN system is being largely dismantled and replaced by a new system of Health Teams that give local communities a chance to find their own solutions.

“We have to come up with better and smarter ways to use our resources,” Lapaine said.

Sarnia-Lambton’s 125,000 residents consume about $420 million annually in health care spending. That covers everything from hospital stays and long-term care to mental health and addiction services.

That level of funding won’t change under a local Health Team, but how it is spent will, Lapaine said.

“We can get rid of inefficiencies and be more innovative. By finding savings in one place, you can free up money to spend more effectively somewhere else,” he said.

For example, if patients making unnecessary but expensive emergency room visits could instead get help from community agencies, the money saved by the hospital could be given to those agencies. That would mean faster, better patient care and less dependency on the ER.

Locally, more than 35 health and social services groups have been working for months with patients, families and caregivers to establish a Sarnia-Lambton Ontario Health Team.

The final application was submitted Sept. 17, and Lapaine is optimistic provincial approval will be coming any day now.

Meanwhile, a working group is brainstorming on ways to improve health care for Sarnia-Lambton’s older residents.

“Older adults present one of our biggest challenges because they may need several physicians and are the ones in our ER a lot,” said Lapaine.

“We know if we can reallocate resources to give them the right supports at home, they’ll do better. Patients always do better at home.”

The second priority group is 12-to-25-year-olds with mental health and addiction issues.

The current system is a patchwork based on the patient’s age and is often difficult to navigate, said Lapaine.

Co-ordinating service through a facility like the Access Open Minds centre proposed for downtown Sarnia is one way to improve the system for that group, he said.

“That’s the kind of thing an Ontario Health Team can do.”

Rather than multiple phone calls and frustrating waits, a locally driven system could have one website to access all services.

“It should be like booking an airline ticket,” said Lapaine.  “You book online and immediately have a plan. A lot goes on behind the scenes but you never see that.”

He predicts having local autonomy will bring a massive modernization of local health care.

“It will be redesigned to be as pain-free as possible for patients travelling through the system,” he said.