The Ontario government has released the next phase of its "Plan to Stay Open" ahead of what they say will likely be a rise in respiratory illnesses in the next few months.
The plan focuses on "health-care system stability and recovery" and aims to add thousands of health-care workers and free up hospital beds. Officials said these additions will help reduce the burden on the broader health system, which has been severely strained over the past few months with staffing shortages.
"Historically, fall and winter are when cases of respiratory illnesses rise, putting strain on emergency departments, hospitals and the broader health system, including long-term care," the 18-page document, released on Thursday, reads.
"This year will also include Omicron. In order to address current pressures, make more progress with surgical backlogs and be properly prepared for any upcoming winter surge, we need to do more."
LONG-TERM CARE RESIDENTS TRANSFERRED TO ALTERNATIVE HOMES
The Progressive Conservative government will introduce legislation that will allow senior patients in hospital waiting to be placed in a long-term care home to be transferred to an alternative facility, potentially in a different community, until their preferred spot opens.
Officials said this new policy will free up 250 hospital beds in the first six months.
The government said there will be "mandatory guidelines" used to ensure patients remain close to their loved ones and that there are no additional costs; however, few details were provided as to what those guidelines entail.
Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Minister of Long-Term Care Paul Calandra said this proposal will ensure patients are receiving care in the appropriate settings.
"There are unfortunately those patients who doctors say no longer need to be in a hospital, but can't go home either because they require additional care," he said. "These amendments, if passed, will make it easier to temporarily transition these patients into a long-term care home where they can receive more appropriate care in a more comfortable setting."
He said patients will not be forced to leave the hospital against their will, but the legislation will allow for conversations to "continue" between coordinators, seniors, and their families.
"There is a challenge in acute care and long-term care is in a position to make a difference for the first time in generations," Calandra added.
Calandra also said no one waiting for a bed in a long-term care facility from the priority waiting list will be removed as a result of this policy.
The last time the Ontario government said they would transfer ill hospital patients into long-term care homes to free up space was in April 2021 amid the third wave of the pandemic. This was done as an amendment to the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, and meant that patients could be moved without their consent or the consent of a decision maker.
Long-term care beds set aside for COVID-19 isolation will also become available by the end of the summer. Officials say this decision was made based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health and will free up 1,000 beds within six months.
They also hope to expand on a program that allows paramedics to transport patients somewhere other than an emergency room or to treat them at the scene. The government says that a pilot program showed 94 per cent of patients avoided the emergency department in the days following treatment.
The plan specifies these policies will "free up" or "make available" hospital beds, rather than create new ones.
INVESTING IN PRIVATE CLINIC SURGERIES
The Ontario government has said it is "investing more" to increase surgeries in both paediatric hospitals and private clinics covered by Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). They will also fund more than 150,000 additional operating hours for hospital-based MRI and CT machines.
The Doug Ford government has come under fire recently for suggesting the privatization of health care was being considered as a way to relieve the burden from hospitals. Since then, both the premier and Jones have been adamant that Ontarians will be able to access services using their OHIP card.
Health Minister Sylvia Jones reiterated this on Thursday when talking about their decision to invest in pre-existing independent clinics, saying there is value in having those facilities take pressure off of health-care partners.
"We need to be bold, innovative and creative," Jones said. "And we need to be clear. Ontarians will always access health care with their OHIP card."
ADDING MORE HEALTH-CARE WORKERS
The PCs are pledging to add up to 6,000 more health-care workers to Ontario's system.
To do this, the government will be temporarily covering the costs of examination, application and registration fees for internationally trained and retired nurses, something they say will reduce financial barriers and save workers about $1,500.
The government has also said it will stabilize agency fees for nurses. The plan says these rates have increased significantly, "creating instability for hospitals, long-term care homes and emergency departments."
Saying that, Jones sidestepped a question about Bill 124, legislation that caps wage increases for public sector workers, such as nurses, to one per cent annually. Advocates and health-care workers have said repealing this bill would greatly help in retaining staff.
Nursing agencies employee staff to work on as-needed basis in a variety of settings during shortages or on short-term contracts.
The government added that emergency departments experiencing "high demand" will be supported in transitioning patients to other nearby hospitals when needed.
The “Plan to Stay Open” was put forward at the end of March as a strategy to “build a stronger, more resilient health system that is better prepared to respond to crisis.”
It included a permanent wage hike for personal support workers, the creation of two new medical schools, a financial investment in nursing programs, the shoring up of domestic production of personal protective equipment and the creation of 3,000 new hospital beds over the next decade.