The Southlake Regional Health Centre is a hospital complex that serves a population of more than a million people in Newmarket, a suburb of Toronto, 40 minutes to the north.

Ironically, it’s in the constituency represented by Christine Elliott – Ontario’s health minister – but no matter, Southlake has a budget deficit and has plans to axe dozens of nurses, even in the midst of the pandemic.

The public has recently been alerted to the fact that nearly 100 registered nurses will be laid off and replaced with 81 other health providers like less-educated practical nurses. This, despite the fact that it currently has hundreds of nursing vacancies and job postings for nurses.

The teaching and research hospital has about 400 patient beds and 600,000 out-patient visits each year. Like many hospitals across Canada, it has not done enough to protect health professionals and other hospital staff from violent patients. The hospital was recently fined $80,000 for an injurious attack on a nurse and security guard.

The CEO of the Southlake hospital, by the way, is Arden Krystal, a former B.C. health executive whom I last wrote about here.

Krystal is prevailing over an institution that has a current $23.5 million shortfall rising to $32 million in 2021/22, even without extra costs associated with COVID-19. Now she and other hospital leaders are about to close a unique arthritis centre which has been the envy of all in the arthritis community across Canada.

Welcome to the perplexing, inherently contradictory world of Canadian hospitals where ill-advised decisions are made because of inadequate budgets and government underfunding.

Thousands of outpatients who have relied upon The Arthritis Program (TAP) for three decades are only now learning about the program closure.

Cheryl Koehn, president, Arthritis Consumer Experts

“Thousands of patients will literally lose their rheumatology care on Jan. 15, in the middle of a pandemic,” said an exacerbated Cheryl Koehn, the Vancouver-based founder and president of Arthritis Consumer Experts.

The TAP program is unique and celebrated, not just in Ontario, but across Canada, Koehn said. It opened in 1991 with government funding of about $600,000 a year and a plan to offer all-encompassing arthritis care under one roof. TAP includes not only dedicated medical staff but also occupational therapy, physical therapy, kinesiology, dieticians, and a dedicated pharmacist.

“We saw a way that we thought could get patients into a treatment program faster which would mean giving them the tools they needed to deal with their condition and improve their overall quality of life sooner,” said Ieva Fraser, Program Coordinator

The TAP program reportedly saves the province $2.5 million per year by providing holistic care that averts hospitalizations and expensive medication use. Studies have shown that patients have better health outcomes, are seen quickly for disease flare-ups, get top-notch patient education and virtual care services. The program has an average of 9,000 patient visits to the clinic every year. That includes patients who return multiple times.

Ontario rheumatologist Dr. Carter Thorne

Dr. Carter Thorne is a rheumatologist who heads the TAP program. You can hear him talk about the program and “best in class” services and outcomes in this video. It will be used to build support by those trying to prevent the closure of the clinic.

Thorne said he’s heard from hospital leaders that the program could stay in the hospital space it now has but it will still lose its annual program funding so that’s a nonstarter.

Carrie Barnes is also in the video. She is a young, articulate Ontario patient ambassador for the program; she lives with rheumatoid arthritis.

Barnes calls TAP a “dreamy, supportive program that gave me my life back.” When TAP closes, patients like her all across Ontario will have to find disjointed care wherever they can.

Barnes said the closure will not only have serious impacts on patients but she predicts hospital costs will go up as patients will have to rely on emergency departments more.

Rheumatoid arthritis patient Carrie Barnes

Advocates have started a social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveTAPNow.