TORONTO - A panel set up by the Ontario government to review health care services in rural and northern communities is "nonsense" because it won't stop hospitals from cutting services or closing altogether, complain activists, local politicians and doctors.

The Ontario Health Coalition, a coalition of community groups, said the panel won't even ask the public about ways to provide better services as many hospitals struggle with growing budget deficits.

"Everybody understood that the panel would be an independent, third party look at the policy direction of the government with regard to the closures of small and rural hospitals, and we're shocked to see a mandate that doesn't include that at all," said spokeswoman Natalie Mehra.

"So it's nonsense."

Ontario's 14 Local Health Integration Networks, or LHINs, will still be able to close emergency rooms or even entire hospitals before the panel reports next year, said Mehra.

"This process provides no direction for those communities as to whether or not these hospitals can be closed now in order to meet the short term budget imperatives or whether the government is going to develop policies to explicitly protect them," she said.

Don McGugan, the mayor of Brooke-Alvinston near Sarnia, said the government's panel needs to speak to the people that will be affected by the health service cuts.

"If you set up a panel to look at rural and northern Ontario, the least you should do out of courtesy is come and talk to the people involved and ask 'what do you want'," said McGugan.

"Come and consult with us, and please just listen and hear real stories."

Rural residents don't expect full hospital services, but do need emergency rooms and diagnostic procedures close to home, added McGugan.

"Don't cut all the services and then say the hospital is not viable," he warned. "That's what they do."

The Ontario Medical Association, the Ontario Health Coalition and several local councils have called for a moratorium on cuts and closures to hospitals until the panel completes its review next year.

"It's only reasonable" for the government to put a hold on major restructuring of hospital services until the northern and rural panel reports next year, said OMA president Dr. Suzanne Strasberg.

Health Minister Deb Matthews said the government will hold public consultations, but not until after the panel completes its review, and she doesn't want to stop LHINs from taking steps now to deal with budget deficits.

"I just think that we have to carry on, and the LHINs are well aware of some of the challenges that are being faced right now," said Matthews.

"I don't want to say to the LHINs, 'time out, stop everything you're doing."'

The province created the LHINs to provide political cover for unpopular decisions to reduce local health care services, said McGugan.

"The LHINs are set up to protect the minister," he said.

Residents from the Muskoka-area communities of Burk's Falls, Magnetawan and Sundridge visited the legislature last month to deliver 6,700 signatures on petitions to save a local hospital from closure.

They said the Ministry of Health has a duty to ensure local hospitals stay open and cannot hide behind the LHINs or hospital boards to avoid its responsibility.

Mehra said people in small communities are angry after seeing a lot of money spent on consultants by eHealth Ontario while they lose hospitals or vital health-care services close to home.

"People are looking at the billion dollars wasted on eHealth and the exorbitant salaries for bureaucrats and local hospital executives and they're outraged," said Mehra.

"I think the McGuinty government doesn't understand the extent to which their health policy is off the rails in terms of the values and priorities of the people of Ontario."

Residents of Fort Erie and Port Colborne recently lost the emergency rooms at their local hospitals, which the OHA said has driven up wait times in nearby St. Catharines and Welland ERs to more than seven hours.

The Ministry of Health says the average emergency room wait time in Ontario for minor or uncomplicated conditions is 4.8 hours, while the provincial target is four hours.

Some of the emergency rooms can be replaced with urgent care centres that serve the "vast majority" of patients that would have gone to the ER in the past, said Matthews.

"From what I understand, 97 per cent of the people who were going to the emergency room in Fort Erie can actually be served at the urgent care centre, and only three per cent of them actually require the emergency service," the minister said.