CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — P.E.I.’s fall sitting of the legislature began Thursday with a volley of questions about Health Minister James Aylward’s handling of mental health and addictions issues in the midst of the pandemic.
Aylward and Premier Dennis King faced questions from both the Opposition Green and Liberal benches about the timeline for replacement of the Hillsborough Hospital mental health campus and about plans to move dementia patients currently housed in Unit 9 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Green Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker began question period by referring to a platform promise to “immediately” replace the Hillsborough Hospital.
King responded by saying his government has been moving forward with plans to replace the aging psychiatric hospital “at breakneck speed”.
"We're developing a mental health campus with services all across Prince Edward Island, which we believe will revolutionize the service we provide here in Prince Edward Island," King said. "Without a doubt, we need to do better."
Aylward announced that the province plans to be “turning sod” within weeks on construction of two components of the new Hillsborough Hospital mental health campus – a replacement for Lacey House and an eight-bed structured housing unit.
Aylward also faced several questions about the decision to close the Unit 9 psychiatric at Queen Elizabeth Hospital early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province discharged patients within the Unit 9 ward in order to allow excess hospital capacity for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients. The surge has not yet materialized, but the unit remained closed until October, when six beds were reopened for patients requiring urgent psychiatric care. A Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinic was also established at the aging Hillsborough Hospital facility.
"What role in the decision to shut down the QEH Unit 9 for mental health services to Islanders did you play?" Liberal MLA Robert Henderson asked Aylward.
Aylward said the decision was made by Health P.E.I. staff in consultation with mental health and addictions leadership.
"What we had to do, what was essential to do, was prepare for the worst outcome. And that was going to be a major outbreak of COVID-19 here on P.E.I. early on," Aylward said.
Prior to October, all beds within Unit 9 were occupied by patients with dementia. In October, six were transferred to the Prince Edward Home. Eight remain in Unit 9.
Green MLA Trish Altass said some patients have spoken out publicly and have said the conditions for these six patients are not suited to patients who require dementia care.
"They do require a safe space that is going to provide the appropriate context to care for those patients. Families are saying that hasn't happened," Altass said in an interview.
Aylward did not speak in detail about Altass’s concerns but referred to the beds at Prince Edward Home as “suitable acute care beds”.
Aylward also said he had corresponded with Bob Nutbrown, owner of the private P.E.I. Seniors Homes. Nutbrown had told a standing committee that he could offer between 16 and 20 beds for dementia patients. But Aylward said his correspondence with Nutbrown did not fully satisfy him that these facilities were currently suitable for the needs of the remaining dementia patients in Unit 9.
“They said that these beds would not be available until well into the end of the year because of the work they would have to do to make it happen,” Aylward said. “It’s not something that was available immediately or the following day. It’s work that needs to be done. We’re currently in conversations with the private long-term care association.”
Stu Neatby is The Guardian's political reporter.
- Unit 9, P.E.I.'s largest hospital's psychiatric unit, has reopened after pandemic-related closure
- P.E.I. long-term care home owner offered province beds for Unit 9 patients
- Mental health and addictions services and support available for P.E.I. residents
- Future of Queen Elizabeth Hospital psychiatric ward unclear
- P.E.I. PCs pledge ‘immediate’ replacement of Hillsborough Hospital