Upcoming CancerCare site closures could hurt patient care, staff say in letter to premier, health minister

CancerCare Manitoba staff are concerned that the upcoming closure of two sites in Winnipeg could be detrimental to patients’ health, and goes against the mission of the organization, according to a letter sent to the provincial government earlier this month.

The provincial cancer care agency announced on Sept. 4 that people receiving outpatient cancer care at Concordia Hospital and Seven Oaks General Hospital were told to make plans for accessing care elsewhere in Winnipeg. Those sites are going to shut down, according to a news release, with a planned consolidation of CancerCare’s six Manitoba sites to four expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“To say we are disappointed is a huge understatement,” staff members from the Concordia location wrote in a letter to Premier Brian Pallister and Health Minister Cameron Friesen.

“Many of our patients have expressed their disappointment with the news. They state this will have a definite impact on their cancer journey.… One patient stated this will affect her decision on whether she will even continue on treatment at all.”

The Opposition NDP obtained a copy of the letter, dated Sept. 10, through a freedom of information request, and released it to the news media on Friday.

The NDP also released a copy of a 2019 public tender that was issued to hire a consultant for an operational review of CancerCare Manitoba.

The review was expected to “identify opportunities for operation efficiencies and fiscal performance,” the tender says, and to examine whether CancerCare “is allocating available resources … optimally to provide services efficiently.”

‘Benefits to access and quality of care’: CancerCare

In a news release earlier this month, Sri Navaratnam, president and CEO of CancerCare Manitoba, said an “independent review of cancer services has highlighted the benefits to access and quality of care” that come with consolidation.

“We are confident these changes will allow for enhanced high-quality cancer services to be delivered safely and effectively at these sites, particularly as Manitoba’s population ages and changes,” Navaratnam said in the Sept. 4 release.

However, in their Sept. 10 letter, the Concordia staff said they are “concerned that this decision has more to do with saving money rather than what is in the best interest of patients.”

The staff say they are also concerned the closures are contrary to the organization’s mission, which is to allow patients to receive care close to home and eliminate the burden of care where possible.

Patients have cited concerns, such as further and more difficult travel, lack of finances to pay for parking, and meeting new staff and navigating a new location without having someone like a family member to help because of COVID-19 restrictions, the letter says.

CBC News has contacted the province for comment.

Nello Altomare, the Manitoba NDP MLA for Transcona, was diagnosed last year with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His cancer has now gone into remission, but he told reporters on Friday the proposed CancerCare closures will have an effect on patients and staff. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

At a news conference Friday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the Progressive Conservative government should step in to stop the closure of Concordia and Seven Oaks sites.

“This decision, at the very least, should be pushed off until the pandemic is over,” said Kinew, noting the decision Friday to elevate the city of Winnipeg and surrounding areas to the orange, or “restricted,” level of the province’s pandemic warning system.

He said he hopes the government will eventually abandon cuts to CancerCare entirely.

“Right in the terms of reference [of the tender]… it said, ‘cut costs,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about cutting costs — it should be about helping people through their journeys through cancer.”

Nello Altomare, the NDP MLA for Transcona, also spoke at Friday’s news conference.

Altomare was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma less than two months after winning his seat in last year’s provincial election, but received news this summer that his cancer had gone into remission.

“When you reduce the number of chairs and spots available, [CancerCare nurses] have to increase the flow of chemotherapy and the drugs going into you,” said Altomare, who used CancerCare services at St. Boniface Hospital.

“I will tell you from personal experience, when the flow is increased, it greatly distresses the nurses because it has an impact on the patient, right at that time.”

Now, during the pandemic, the nurses are “a lifeline” because they are the only ones by the patient’s side while they’re undergoing treatment, he said.

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