When the Progressive Conservatives said they planned to take a closer look at how ambulance services are organized across the province, that had paramedics clamouring this week to find out more information.
"Paramedics have been caught off guard by this announcement," said Corey Schepers, president of OPSEU Local 303, which represents hundreds of Simcoe County paramedics.
The idea of restructuring paramedic services was hinted at in last week's provincial budget, with reports indicating 59 local ambulance services could be cut down to 10 regional operations. In other words, creating regional services and doing away with locally operated systems.
"There has been a lot of speculation and very few facts presented," Schepers told BarrieToday. "Our concern is, and will always be, patient care, no matter the outcome of proposed changes. There is a general concern that this could affect ambulance response times and overall patient care."
The news also had some paramedics worried about possible loss of jobs, although Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and even Barrie-Innisfil MPP Andrea Khanjin have all come out to say that will not be the case.
Khanjin told BarrieToday that discussions are only in the early stages and nothing is imminent., but the goal is to improve Ontario's health-care system.
"It's just part of our modernization efforts to get back into the 21st century," she said.
There are no details, however, about what exactly that could entail.
Jane Sinclair, the county's general manager of health and emergency services, said there was "initial concern" as the news story developed, and how it had been communicated by the province to its service partners, such as Simcoe County.
"This dramatic change in service delivery structure could ultimately distance our overall understanding and planning around local community needs, and appears to contrast with the provincial messaging of the local Ontario Health Teams," Sinclair told BarrieToday.
Simcoe County's budget for paramedic services, which also provides service in the cities of Barrie and Orillia, is just over $73 million for 2019.
Simcoe County Paramedic Services employs more than 350 people, which includes both full- and part-time primary and advanced-care paramedics, supervisors and administrative support staff.
Since 2004, Sinclair said the county's paramedics division "has been a leader in Ontario in delivering advanced, reliable, timely, and clinically sophisticated care to people throughout our region.
"We are also concerned about the philosophies and motivations that may be supporting the proposed changes by the province," she added.
Since its inception, Sinclair said Simcoe County's paramedic service, and other municipal providers, have taken "an antiquated and broken provincial land ambulance system, and have provided a significantly clinically improved, cost-efficient and effective acute-care and community-based paramedic program," she said.
Those efforts have been proven to save lives, Sinclair added, by using new technologies and medical interventions, included multi-community CPR training, providing public-access defibrillation, leading-edge heart attack and stroke bypass programs, and paramedic referral and community paramedicine home visit programs.
"All of these efforts have proven to keep patients healthier and out of hospitals, in an overall much more sustainable and value-based format," Sinclair said.
Simcoe County paramedics respond to more than 73,000 calls annually, working out of 23 stations or posts covering a large area.
"The County of Simcoe Paramedic Services continually works diligently with local and provincial partners to improve access to critical emergency services, while ensuring value for every tax dollar," said Sinclair.
Local paramedics have also had a hand in reducing off-load delays and providing referrals to get people the right health services best suited for them, "which are some of the major challenges for Ontario’s health-care system," she added.
Simcoe County has also advocated for system improvements, such as dispatch service modernization and community paramedicine program support, which improve the lives of patients and reduce strain on the health-care system and which ultimately works to reduce hallway medicine, Sinclair said.
As discussions on possible ambulance restructuring move forward, Sinclair said county officials will be keeping a close eye on any developments.
"The county is actively seeking further information from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care ... regarding their motivations and vision for changes to pre-hospital care in Ontario," she said. "As always, our underlying goal is to work with the province to ensure residents and services are not negatively impacted and that any further modifications would only prove to strengthen the local health-care system."