Ontario health-care workers, advocates and politicians say they are "deeply troubled" by the slew of health-care and long-term care announcements released Thursday, claiming the plan prioritizes private solutions to public problems.
The announcements, which were made under the umbrella of Ontario's 'Plan to Stay Open,' came as hospital emergency rooms struggle to remain open due to staffing shortages and the backlog of surgeries continues to grow.
The province's plan for "health-care system stability and recovery" involves freeing up beds in hospitals and long-term care facilities, the hiring of thousands of new health-care workers and investments in independent and private clinic offering OHIP services.
Shortly after Ontario officials released the plan, unions and health-care workers spoke out criticizing the government's efforts and saying they have "grave concerns."
The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) said the government's plan is simply "a blatant move that will line the pockets of investors, nothing more."
"Today's government announcement is nothing more than shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Placing patients into 'vacant' long-term care beds and 'alternative health facilities' is another disaster waiting to happen," ONA President Cathryn Hoy said in a statement.
"As we have witnessed over the past two-plus years, our long-term care system is fraught with significant challenges, including nurse and health-care workers' staffing. Adding more patients and residents will do nothing but create additional chaos."
Hoy says the government missed an opportunity to discuss supports for nurses, particularly salary increases, which they say is a huge reason why nurses are moving to private? agencies rather than being retained at hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Instead, the plan extends funding for hospitals to redeploy physicians to emergency rooms, but does not mention anything about Bill 124, legislation that caps nurse salaries to a one per cent increase annually.
The government said it will also "stabilize agency fees," which are significantly higher than the wages being paid to provincial nurses.
Unifor, a union representing more than 30,000 health and social services workers, said their members "are not ok" and that's why many are leaving to work with agencies.
"They have worked through a humanitarian crisis, and yet there is still little relief in sight for them. They watch their co-workers leave the industry altogether, or take jobs with agencies that double their salary and allow them the work flexibility they need," national President Lana Payne said in a letter to Premier Doug Ford.
"Most are still constrained by Bill 124 and the antiquated arbitration system that takes away their right to legally strike has failed them."
Payne says the government's $5,000 retention bonus for nurses—something the PCs bring up nearly every time Bill 124 is brought up—is "too little too late."
"Our health-care system is more than nurses and PSWs and shortages of staff are seen across the spectrum from cleaners to paramedics to technologists to cooks," Payne writes.
"Hospitals and other employers are resorting to desperate measures including excessive overtime and expensive agency use. This crisis is not about money. Privatization always costs more, delivers less, and is not a viable solution."
Palliative Care Physician Dr. Amit Arya took to Twitter to ask how the government's "Plan To Stay Open" helps nurses in Ontario.
"The 'Plan to Stay Open' has no actual plan to repeal Bill 124 and retain nurses in our public healthcare system," he writes. Can someone please tell the Ontario government that there is no health-care system without nurses to provide the actual care within the health-care system?"
Meanwhile, the CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario told CP24 the plan to increase the number of nurse practitioners and push internationally recruited nurses through the system is a positive move.
"The fact that they're finally tackling the issue of internationally educated nurses is important and must be recognized," Doris Grinspun said.
At the same time, Grinspun said it was "absurd" that Bill 124 still exists and "it must be repealed."
In a statement, the CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association praised the government's strategy, saying it will help maintain access to health services during what is bound to be a challenging period.
"It is essential that all partners continue to work closely together with a ‘Team Ontario’ approach to overcome the complex, underlying issues facing the healthcare system. Hospitals are here to serve the people of Ontario and will continue to do everything possible to meet their health service needs," Anthony Dale said.
Sue Vanderbent, the CEO of Home Care Ontario, felt the province "properly diagnosed" the challenges facing Ontario's health system.
"The challenges being felt by hospitals are connected to similar challenges in home care and long-term care as well. What we see with today’s announcement is government beginning to build health care capacity in the community, which is exactly what Ontarians want and need."
Ontario Liberal MPP Dr. Adil Shamji said the announcements show the Ford government didn't learn from the pandemic and are offering solutions that will have devastating impacts on patients and their families.
“Instead of investing in healthcare workers and repealing Bill 124, Minister Jones has instead chosen to invest in for-profit independent health facilities that will lead to poorer health outcomes for patients and pull our healthcare workers out of the public system where they are needed most," he said.
“Rather than ignoring her responsibility to strengthen our publicly funded healthcare system by asking the for-profit sector to solve the problems the Ford government created, Minister Jones must provide real solutions that address the root causes of the extreme pressure facing our healthcare system."