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Paramedics are concerned over government plan to improve ambulance services

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé followed through on a promise to provide an action plan to improve ambulance services, after pronouncing earlier last month that the current wait times were simply “unacceptable.”

Dubé announced on February 29 that investments totalling nearly $630 million would be provided over five years to improve the province’s prehospital emergency system. The plan includes several concrete actions to address the situation, such as increasing the number of automated external defibrillators accessible to the public and extending first responder services to more areas. There are also up to $5.9 million to improve ambulance services in the Laurentides, Mauricie-Centre-du-Québec, Montérégie-Centre, and Chaudière-Appalaches regions.

In a statement, Dubé noted that in the context of an aging population and growing health needs the government is reviewing its front-line services. The plan aims to modernize pre-hospital emergency services while bringing about a change in culture to optimize the role of paramedics and improve such services in the regions.

For example, a total of $7.65 million over five years will be dedicated to reducing the time spent by paramedics in hospitals. According to the Ministry of Health, paramedics spend on average 100 minutes during a pre-hospital intervention, of which 50 minutes are spent in hospital. The ministry has set a target of 45 minutes by 2026 and says this could recover the equivalent of 50,000 hours of ambulance availability.

The government has also announced the creation of four helipads, which will be located at the Centre hospitalier régional de Lanaudière in Joliette, the Hôpital de Roberval, the McGill University Health Centre, and the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur in Montreal.

No new ambulances

Montérégie paramedics, while welcoming the additional funding and resources, are sounding an alarm over the lack of financing in the action plan for any new ambulances.

The territory served by the Coopérative des techniciens ambulanciers de la Montérégie (CETAM), which covers Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Chateauguay, and municipalities along the South Shore, is among the most overloaded in the province according to the provincial classification of workloads by ambulance zone. Between April 2022 and April 2023, over 93,000 calls were assigned, and paramedics worked over 4,221 overtime hours, mostly at the end of their shifts. The Syndicat des paramédics et du préhospitalier de la Montérégie (SPPM-CSN) says they have been calling for years for an additional seven vehicles to adequately respond to the growing number of calls.

Instead of seeing their fleet grow, however, the SPPM is currently waiting to learn whether cuts to the number of ambulances will take place this spring within the territory served by the CETAM.

Since 2021, the Centre integré de services de santé et de services sociaux de la Montérégie-Centre (CISSSMC), which coordinates the ambulance services for the entirety of the Montérégie region, has authorized the temporary addition of four ambulances to help cover the territory. The organization evaluates whether to keep the additional vehicles each year at the end of March. Last year, the CISSSMC announced it did not have the finances to maintain the ambulances, though the organization reversed its decision soon after.

“The deadline is fast approaching, and despite this, the CISSS and the ministry are still unable to confirm that the temporary additions to the fleet will be continued,” said Gaétan Dutil, the president of the SPPM-CSN. “Year after year, we’re asked to add vehicles, and year after year, we’re offered temporary and inadequate half-measures,” he added.

“This situation is putting enormous pressure on our paramedics, and does not bode well for services to the population in areas where access to an ambulance within a reasonable time is already difficult,” he added.

“It would be catastrophic if we lost an ambulance,” said Mathieu Lacombe, a spokesperson for the SPPM-CSN. The fact there has been no indication of where the government funds will be invested in the Montérégie is a concern, he added.

“We have no idea,” he said. “It is really uncertain right now – for paramedics, but for the population as well.”

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