Ontario’s NDP party is warning that hospitals in northwestern Ontario may be forced to close the doors to their emergency rooms due to a growing shortage of doctors and physicians.

“Northerners deserve to have quality, reliable access to healthcare,” said Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath. “They shouldn’t have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get to an emergency room. No one should ever pull up to the hospital to find the ER doors locked.”

The NDP’s message comes after the closure of the Red Lake Margaret Cochenour Hospital’s emergency room on the weekend of March 25, which was caused by a shortage in local physicians and locums.

At least two patients had to be transported to Dryden for medical care, over 200 kilometres away. Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota called the closure unacceptable, noting it affected a number of First Nation communities in the Red Lake area.

“It is absolutely not okay and not safe that families are facing the threat of ER closures in our province,” adds Horwath. “This government needs to listen to these doctors who are sounding the alarm and laying out solutions, and they need to act now to keep northern ERs open.”

The NDP says Dr. Sara Van Der Loo, chair of the Northwest Regional Chief of Staff Council, has warned that every small hospital in the region could see their emergency rooms close due to physician shortages, and hospitals across northwestern Ontario are at risk.

“Many communities across the north are suffering a severe shortage of physicians,” wrote Van Der Loo. “The decision and consequences of closures need to be owned by the government, including Ontario Health, and not the clinicians in communities.”

During Question Period at Queen’s Park, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa called on the province to address the healthcare worker crisis in northwestern Ontario immediately. He noted the Ford government voted against the NDP’s motion to fund a plan to attract, train and retain healthcare workers and specialists in Northern Ontario late last month.

“Doug Ford and his government have not prioritized the health and safety and the basic access to hospital emergency room care of Northern Ontarians. Staff are suffering from increased burnout,” adds Horwath.

“This government is not effectively recruiting, retaining or returning our healthcare heroes. Now, small and large hospitals are at risk of temporary emergency department closures. In this great and wealthy province, it should never have come to this – and we’ve got to take urgent action to fix it,” she finishes.

In response, Ontario says they’ve been able to add 8,600 healthcare workers to the province’s health system since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has announced a new plan to bolster the provincial healthcare system.

The Plan to Stay Open legislation, if passed, will look to recruit and retain more doctors, nurses and personal support workers, will expand domestic production of personal protective equipment and aims to build 3,000 new hospital beds over 10 years.

Still, the Canadian Institute for Health Information says Ontario ranks seventh among provinces in the number of family doctors per 100,000 patients, with the shortage being notably worse in northern and rural communities.

As well, the institute says Ontario spends an average of 8 per cent less on healthcare per capita than any other province in Canada, outside of British Columbia.