Ontario’s health care system is still in crisis. Faced with a respiratory trifecta of Influenza, RSV, and COVID-19 infections, hospital emergency departments and intensive care units are over run with people young and old who are seriously ill. Children’s hospitals like CHEO are diverting older teenage patients to other hospitals as it bursts at the seams. The crisis in immediate health care is amplified by staffing shortages due to illness or vacancies. This is not only a city problem as the impact is trickling down even to rural areas. Recently the Winchester District Memorial Hospital shuttered its maternity unit over night due to staff shortages.
The health care system has been bent to its breaking point for nearly three years as wave after wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but to be clear, the system was already failing. Chronic under investment for decades by the previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments set up the health care system for failure.
Since taking office in 2018, Premier Doug Ford and his government have ramped up spending in health care, but has it been the right spending? Significant increases began in 2020 as everything and the kitchen sink was thrown at the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford says his government has “spared no expense” to address our health care woes, but The Leader disagrees.
Bricks and mortar spending for hospital expansion and new facilities far outpaces the spending on staff. While shovels are going into the ground for everything from hospitals, clinics, and long term care homes (except Dundas Manor), only a fraction is spent on staff. Facing burnout from the pandemic, and an aging workforce, more and more critical hospital staff have left. Many of those who have left cite high stress and poor working conditions.
Recognizing foreign-trained workers’ credentials in Ontario has improved but there is still a significant backlog, keeping potential new staff from the workforce. Spending money on new training programs and offering free tuition for certain college/university programs will help educate new staff for three-to-five years from now. But that spending does not address the immediate needs.
The solution to the problem, which may sound overly simplistic, is people – namely spending money to hire more staff. It is not just hiring, but appropriately paying staff to retain them. Retaining staff is an issue, in part due to the government’s Bill 124 which capped public sector wage increases. Better hours and more pay from the private sector is difficult to compete against with capped wages and stressful working conditions. Last week the government lost an appeal at the Superior Court of Ontario which struck down Bill 124. Instead of looking to provide more competitive compensation to retain staff, Ford is looking to spend more money appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.
It is clear that our health care system is bent to the point of breaking. It is also clear that throwing money at physical buildings does not do any good if you do not have the staff go with them. The government needs to refocus on what is really needed now to get through this crisis.