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Liberals urged to grant oversight of health-care system to Ontario ombudsman

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TORONTO - The governing Liberals are resisting calls to grant oversight of the health-care system to the Ontario ombudsman, like every other province and territory in Canada.

They're planning to create a separate patient ombudsman instead, but it's a weaker role that won't make the sector more accountable to patients or their families, critics say.

Maria Daskalos said she received no help when she complained about the treatment her 92-year-old mother was getting in a Toronto hospital four years ago.

It was a "living nightmare," she said. Her mother was in and out of heart failure, but the hospital wanted her out of her acute care bed and bullied her family, she said, adding they tried to sedate her mother even though she couldn't tolerate those drugs.

"At a time when there should have been compassion for our mother, there was none," she said. "The hospital was relentless in their pursuit to remove her."

Her mother contracted an infection during her stay, Daskalos said. She believes the hospital didn't protect her and complained to officials while her mother was dying.

But they didn't take any action and told her family to write a letter to the hospital's patient relations representative. No investigation was launched, she said.

"How can the offender possibly investigate itself?" she asked.

"The only way to achieve true independent oversight is to grant the provincial ombudsman the direct power of investigation over health care. Otherwise, the abuse, the untimely deaths like my mother's and the continued erosion of quality care in our health-care system will continue."

Ontario is the lone holdout among the provinces and territories to grant oversight of its health-care system to its ombudsman, said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

The Liberals haven't explained why they're creating a new position when ombudsman Andre Marin is more than happy to take on the responsibility, she said.

"There is no best practice, there is no precedent, there is no valid reason to support their decision," she said. "Their decision is not defendable."

The provincial patient ombudsman would only be able to investigate hospitals, nursing homes and Community Care Access Centres, not the entire system, Gelinas said.

It would also be difficult for the person to be neutral, since they wouldn't be reporting to the legislature like Marin, she said.

A large number of complaints are resolved through hospital patient relations, said Mary Gavel, who worked in that area for more than 30 years.

But there are cases that require independence from the health-care system and its staff if the outcome is to be seen as fair and credible, she added.

It can be challenging for patient relations staff to remain neutral when they're employed by a health-care organization, Gavel said.

"From my experience, I do not believe that a patient ombudsman that would exist as currently proposed by the Liberal government in Bill 8 will achieve what patients and families are looking for with regard to a neutral, independent third party to listen to their complaints after they have exhausted the internal process within a health-care system," she said.

Ontario's ombudsman is already a trusted third party who can provide patients and their families with the kind of help they're seeking, she added.

Deputy premier Deb Matthews, a former health minister, said the patient ombudsman would have all the same powers of investigation as Marin.

The person wouldn't report to the government, but to Health Quality Ontario, an arm's-length agency which already measures and reports on the quality of long-term care, she said.

The patient ombudsman would be completely focused on the health-care sector, unlike the ombudsman who has many other responsibilities, said Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins.

"This will be an individual who is wholly independent, at arm's length to the government and an agency of government will issue a report annually which will be made available to the general public as well," he said.

Marin oversees Health Quality Ontario and would also have oversight of the patient ombudsman, Hoskins added.

Marin's office has an annual budget of about $11.2 million to investigate complaints about the administration of provincial government organizations and produce reports that are submitted directly to the legislature.

The proposed legislation would grant Marin oversight of municipalities, universities and colleges, and school boards.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect first name for Maria Daskalos

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