Facing mounting opposition, Health Minister Réjean Hébert said Thursday that “it’s not a done deal” that Lachine Hospital will be pulled out of the bilingual McGill University Health Centre so that it can be “re-integrated into a local network of the French language.”
However, Hébert maintained that it still makes sense to yank Lachine Hospital out of the control of the MUHC because the West Island institution would never be a priority of the MUHC’s.
“It’s not a done deal,” he told reporters in Laval. “I’m waiting for the report from the (Montreal Health and Social Services) Agency on whether it’s feasible … and what the plan would be if it is feasible.”
Earlier in the day, Lachine borough Mayor Claude Dauphin faxed Hébert a letter threatening to organize massive citizen protests unless the Parti Québécois government backs down on its plan for Lachine Hospital.
“I don’t want to live through a language debate on health care,” Dauphin told The Gazette.
“I mean, we’re in 2013. Honestly, I go to the hospital very frequently and meet a lot of patients — francophone and anglophone — and they are satisfied with the services in the hospital and its association with the MUHC. The MUHC is not in any way undermining the francophone nature of our hospital.”
Dauphin noted that residents banded together in 2007 to save Lachine Hospital from planned cuts by the local health network, the CSSS Dorval-Lachine-LaSalle. He said community leaders approached the MUHC and struck an agreement to be part of the university hospital centre.
“We mobilized our population six years ago to save our hospital and we’ll do it again if we have to,” Dauphin said. “For the health minister to say in his letter that the fact that we are with McGill doesn’t help our francophone identity doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Hébert told reporters that his plans for Lachine Hospital don’t stem from a desire to preserve the francophone “vocation” of the institution, as he stated in a letter to the Montreal Health and Social Services Agency on Dec. 20.
“It’s not a language issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of how we can better serve the population of the West Island.”
However, he added that “there are many concerns … in the press about the traditional role of Lachine Hospital in serving the French population of the West Island. It is an issue. It is a concern. But it’s not the primary motivation of this measure.”
The MUHC found out on Monday about Hébert’s plans for Lachine, blindsiding many of its physicians.
Heart surgeon Renzo Cecere, president of the MUHC’s council of physicians, dentists and pharmacists, warned that yanking Lachine Hospital out of the MUHC would jeopardize many medical services, including the hospital’s ER, bariatric surgery, urology and dialysis.
What’s more, a $66-million planned renovation project would probably be put on ice, and some MUHC physicians who now work at Lachine would eventually practise elsewhere, he said.
“The MUHC had absolutely no knowledge of any type of discussion about this decision beforehand,” Cecere said. “We were not consulted on any level and it came to us as a total shock.”
He noted that a committee was struck at Lachine Hospital specifically to oversee the “preservation of the francophone identity with the MUHC.”
“French is the first language at the hospital, and this committee has been up and running, represented by Lachine and the MUHC administration — with both sides being entirely satisfied with the process.”
François Ouimet, the Liberal MNA for the Marquette riding that represents Lachine, suggested that Hébert is playing the language card for political reasons.
“Is language being used as a red herring in order not to provide funding for the renovation project at Lachine Hospital?” Ouimet asked.
“What I can tell you is that language has never been an issue in that hospital. We’re blessed to be part of the MUHC.”
Both Cecere and Dauphin speculated that the MUHC’s budget problems — the fact that it’s facing a $115-million deficit — might also be a factor in the government’s decision. But Dauphin argued that the MUHC’s financial crisis is an entirely separate issue.
“Yes, there is a deficit, but that’s different,” he said. “We’re talking now about the structure of the hospital. He wants us to change the structure to go back to the CSSS Dorval-Lachine-LaSalle, but we tried that six years ago and it didn’t work.
“At that time, there was a big war between the doctors in LaSalle and those in Lachine, and LaSalle wanted to take the lead over Lachine, and that’s why we wanted to affiliate Lachine with the MUHC.”
Dauphin noted that the PQ government in the mid-1990s closed the anglophone Lachine General Hospital. Hôpital St-Joseph, which is now referred to as Lachine Hospital, assumed the responsibility of caring for “both the anglophone community and the francophone community, and it has been giving good service,” he said.
Lachine, with a population of 39,400, has 58.2 per cent of its residents speaking French and 23.7 per cent whose mother tongue is English, according to the 2011 Statistics Canada census. The remaining 18.1 per cent speak other languages.
However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as Lachine Hospital’s role within the MUHC is to serve patients across Montreal. For example, morbidly obese patients from across the city undergo bariatric surgery at the hospital, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
News of the Hébert’s decision has been trending on Twitter since Wednesday night, with not a single comment in support of the government.
“We must mobilize!” tweeted Lachine councillor Jane Cowell-Poitras.
“Ridicule!” tweeted Stefan Stanczykowski, a Montreal lawyer.