‘No, no, no’: Health Minister pushes back against privatization

Ontario's Health Minister says health care services currently covered by OHIP will remain that way. Richard Southern with how Sylvia Jones is still leaving the door open to some privatization of care.

By Richard Southern and Mike Visser

Ontario’s health minister is emphasizing today that people in the province will always be able to access health care without paying out of pocket, a day after she came under fire for refusing to rule out further privatization in the system.

“No, no, no,” Sylvia Jones replied when asked if Ontarians could be forced to pay for care they currently receive under OHIP. “What I referenced yesterday was innovation. We should not be afraid of innovation.”

Jones went on to say that access to healthcare through OHIP “is never going to change.” However, she did not rule out more of a role for private corporations to deliver public services, which already happens in Ontario’s system. She did not, however, provide an answer when asked if private surgical companies could be involved in addressing the backlog in surgeries created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The minister’s comments come a day after she wouldn’t rule out the idea of privatization to help ease Ontario’s ongoing healthcare crisis.

Interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said Jones is opening the door to two-tier medicine.

“Did she say that we won’t have expansion of private healthcare in Ontario? No, she didn’t say that, she would not say that and people should be angry about that,” he said.

Tabuns said if a private company were enlisted to help with surgeries, for example, there would be a knock-on effect to the public system, leaving it vulnerable to losing more health-care workers to those private companies.

The current health staff shortages have led to emergency departments across the province closing for hours or days at a time.

Jones said earlier this week that six emergency departments were temporarily closed last weekend.

A spokesperson for Cambridge Memorial Hospital said Thursday eight surgeries have been cancelled due to high patient volumes in the hospital’s emergency department, which have been compounded by staff shortages and staff vacancies.

The hospital also warned earlier this week that emergency wait times were “much higher than normal” due to high patient volumes and ongoing staff shortages.

The new health minister has only met with the province’s largest nursing union for five minutes, said Ontario Nurses’ Association president Cathryn Hoy.

“We need a government that’s going to work with us, a government that wants to make change and invest monies where money should be invested,” Hoy said.

Hoy wants to see the government scrap wage-limiting legislation for public sector employees. That would help the field retain and attract new nurses rather than lose them to the private sector, she said.

There are hundreds of unfilled nursing jobs in many hospitals, she said, which then forces those hospitals to turn to nursing agencies to backfill those positions in the interim.

She said those agencies are charging hospitals four times the going rate for a registered nurse.

“That is an abuse,” Hoy said. “It is an abuse of health-care dollars and it is abuse of the people of Ontario because we’re the ones paying the bill.”

Hoy said internationally trained nurses need to be licensed to work in the province, but even if that process gets sped up, there is a lack of veteran nurses left to help train them in hospitals.

The NDP is also tabling a motion at Queen’s Park to try to hike wages for workers across the province.

“It calls for an end to Premier Doug Ford’s wage cap policy, Bill 124. It calls for raises for all healthcare workers. It calls for better working conditions for healthcare workers,” said interim NDP leader Peter Tabuns.

It’s a motion that’s already gaining support among some union leaders.

“If you privatize some of healthcare, the public system will deeply suffer and people will suffer in Ontario,” said Cathryn Hoy, President of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

NDP Health Critic France Gélinas also moved a motion asking for an emergency debate on healthcare in the legislature. That motion was quickly rejected.

Files from The Canadian Press were used in this report

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