Bed closures will lower services for mentally ill Yukoners

Yukon health officials have been caught off guard by the Alberta government's decision to close psychiatric patient beds in Edmonton.

Yukon health officials have been caught off guard by the Alberta government’s decision to close psychiatric patient beds in Edmonton.

“The first we heard about it was this week,” said Whitehorse General Hospital spokesperson Karen-Dawn Braden.

The closure of 246 beds at the Alberta Hospital Edmonton’s psychiatric ward, announced in August, risks cutting services for northerners, who use the facility for addiction treatments and healing programs for aboriginals, said hospital psychiatrists.

Nineteen doctors at the hospital mailed a letter to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukark last week citing their grave concerns about the closures, slated to take effect next month. The closures could violate the human rights of aboriginals living in the three territories because services are so sparse, warned the doctors.

Yukon Health and Social Services officials confirmed the bed closures could diminish services for mentally ill Yukoners.

“We are monitoring to see (what happens) because, obviously, if Edmonton does away with these beds, it will have some impact on us,” said department spokesperson Pat Living.

But the Yukon has deals with other hospitals and the impact shouldn’t be too hard, she said.

“We are talking so few beds per annum that we have options.”

Eleven people were sent south for mental health issues between March 2008 and March 2009, said Braden, the hospital spokesperson.

Since then, another seven have been sent out of the territory.

Mentally ill patients are sent Outside when the Yukon can’t provide proper treatments.

Whitehorse General Hospital doesn’t house a psychiatric ward, but a secure medical unit for the mentally ill is currently under construction, said Braden.

A tally of the new services being offered in the soon-to-open unit will be made public later this month, she said.

While the closures will make it harder for the Yukon government to find beds, there are still plenty of options for mentally ill patients, both spokespeople said.

There are two streams of people that get sent Outside for psychiatric treatment – those committed by law and those who are committed by family or physicians.

Health and Social Services is responsible for anyone committed under the Yukon Mental Health Act, which forces people to be hospitalized if they’ve become a serious danger to themselves or others.

The department has agreements with Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia to house these patients, said Living.

There is no preferred destination for patients. It’s just a matter of where a bed opens up first, she said.

“These beds are really hard to come by,” said Living. “But we don’t need (the agreements) that often.”

Patients in this stream, who are evaluated by the Yukon Territory Review Board, will likely be sent farther east from now on.

The second stream of patients, those committed by family or doctors, are handled by the Whitehorse hospital.

The hospital uses a service called BC Bedline to place patients.

Bedline usually only offers beds in BC and Alberta, said Braden.

The hospital will likely use more British Columbia hospitals with the closure of the Edmonton beds.

“I expect that’s precisely what we’ll do,” said Braden.

It isn’t clear what effect the Edmonton bed closures will have on the Yukon’s health expenses.

Mental health hospital claims made outside the Yukon totalled $2.2 million in 2008/2009, said Living.

“Yukon pays for the bed and the treatment,” said Living.

While the Yukon pays for medevacing most Yukoners outside the territory, aboriginal people have their non-insured health benefits, including medevacs, covered by the Indian and Northern Affairs Department.

Contact James Munson at