When the cash crunch increases, it is easily the public welfare programmes that get the axe. And in Canada the federal government has chosen to shut down the bilingual Canadian Health Network, a popular health website, shocking many.
It is considered a user-friendly site, providing both the public at large as also medical professionals with reliable, non-commercial health information.
The network will shut down at the end of March. This will allow the Public Health Agency of Canada to cut $7 million of the $16.7 million it was ordered to cut from its grants to outside groups in the coming fiscal year.
"It's a huge loss," said Dr. Taylor Alexander, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association. "One of the unique features of this site is that it is consumer-focused. It gives access to a treasure house of health information and resources that's available to the general public right across the country on a wide variety of subjects and for all ages."
The association is one of the 26 government and non-government affiliates, ranging from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Diabetes Society to the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, that contribute to the eight-year-old site.
Website affiliates say they were stunned by the health agency's decision to kill the website. They say shutting down the site will deprive ordinary people, as well as nurses, doctors and other medical personnel, access to an unparalleled source of reliable information on physical and mental health issues.
Websites operated by the federal health department and the public health agency offer nowhere near the depth and breadth of practical information found on the Canadian Health Network (www.canadian-health-network.ca), they say.
Public health agency officials declined to discuss the decision, but spokesman Alain Desroches said in a statement it was "very difficult" to make. The statement praised the website's affiliates as "visionaries in recognizing how the Internet could help people find credible information on diverse topics, from active living to workplace health."
Connie Clement, executive director of the Ontario Prevention Clearinghouse, an affiliate that focuses on health promotion, questioned why the government would cut such a vital health care resource when it is running a fat budget surplus. She said Canadians will be forced to rely on websites funded by "for-profit" operations that are not as credible.
"I hope we can reverse the decision," she said.
The website's popularity and value is not in doubt, Clement said. The number of hits, now about 380,000 a month, is up 70 per cent from last year, she said, adding almost 40 per cent of the visitors are health-care professionals.
Clement said the public health agency has not been properly funded since it was created four years ago, and the government - in the midst of a widespread program review to cut spending - should not be squeezing any of its operations.
The government statement suggested the public health agency would be expanding its own website, which, it said, had become a "major, trusted, credible, evidence-based information source" over the past few years.
But Clement said government websites have big information gaps in such areas as sexual, environmental and mental health.
But no many seem to share her hopes on somehow persuading the government to continue the funding of the site.