Local dialysis patients will no longer be automatically eligible for rides on Waterloo region's public transportation service for those with limited mobility.
The move by Grand River Transit's MobilityPLUS will result in operational cost savings of $220,000 a year and follows what other public transit services in Ontario are doing in relation to dialysis and cancer patient priority.
Earlier this fall, a comprehensive service review identified a number of changes that will help enhance the service, increase ridership and better align operations with what is intended under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
One of those recommendations was to apply the same "functional limitation assessments to all applicants for service."
But before approving the request, regional council asked staff to look at best practices from other city transit providers.
Neil Malcolm, assistant director for transit services, provided an update during Tuesday's regional committee of the whole meeting, that reinforced the earlier recommendation with the requested information.
None of the other peer agencies he consulted, in cities like London, Hamilton, Oakville and York Region, prioritize bookings based on trip purposes.
"It's an outdated practice that we should be moving away from," he said.
Instead, they assess dialysis applications on a case-by-case basis and do not receive additional funding or support.
Prior to March 2021, MobilityPLUS was prioritizing medical trips for all bookings, but had since moved to a first-come, first-served booking model for all customers except dialysis patients.
After gathering public feedback over the summer, Malcolm said it was clear most dialysis patients were opposed to the recommended change, but discussions continue with Grand River Hospital's renal program to minimize the impact and increase efficiencies with the service.
By eliminating the trip priority system, the service will use its existing algorithms to move and group trips in a way that accommodates the largest number of requests in the most efficient way and along the best route, the report says.
"Continuing to provide trip priority for one group does not align with the AODA and we should be assessing all applicants for specialized service based on their functional abilities and granting access to travel on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of trip purpose," Malcolm said, emphasizing the fact that MobilityPLUS is not for use exclusively for medical transportation.
With the change, dialysis patients will have to apply and be assessed for the service just like any other client and they won't be guaranteed rides going forward.
But Malcolm believes most, if not all, dialysis patients would be approved for travel and would be able to follow the same booking process as other customers.
Regional councillor Elizabeth Clarke said she didn't want the decision to come down to a cost-savings exercise and was assured the intention is to deliver the service more equitably.
"I do feel dialysis patients are a priority," said Cambridge regional councillor Karl Kiefer. "The treatment can be a life or death situation at times."
Kiefer said creating a satellite dialysis clinic at Cambridge Memorial would alleviate some of the stress on those individuals but that’s for another conversation on another day.
Cambridge Mayor Kathryn McGarry said she is quite confident in moving to a system like this and sees how it will be easier for the operators to prioritize, schedule and increase the number of rides in a day.
She noted the dialysis unit at Grand River Hospital can also continue to book rides for its patients.
"This is really, from my point of view, not an issue," she said.
Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the recommendation.