The pain of a provincial health-care shakeup could be particularly felt in Sudbury and the broader region, according to critics of the Ford initiative.
“Mergers for the North don’t work,” said Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition. “The plan is take 1,800 health service providers — hospitals, long-term care, palliative care, air ambulance, laboratories, all of it — and merge them into giant conglomerates. That model of health care does not work for a widely dispersed population over a giant geographic area.”
Mehra was speaking via media teleconference Tuesday, along with Ontario Nurses Association president Vicki McKenna, as part of a Health Action Day to protest cuts to the sector.
“This is like the Mike Harris era of restructuring, writ huge,” said Mehra. “It’s the most radical restructuring this province has ever seen.”
Tuesday’s actions included thousands of people donning Stop Health Privatization stickers and distributing leaflets to warn of more changes to come.
“We’re pretty pleased with the take-up,” said Mehra. “At this point we can report accurately that more than 150,000 nurses, doctors, public health professionals, support workers, patient advocates and patient groups are wearing stickers warning of health-care privatization and asking the public to support public health care.”
More than 100 hospitals and health-care facilities participated in the day of action, she added.
Mehra said her organization is concerned the new legislation allows for a major erosion of public medicare, with numerous services targeted for privatization.
Bill 74, enacted Thursday at Queen’s Park, provides the Ford government with “unprecedented powers to order the privatization of virtually any part of our health-care system,” she warned.
Mehra said the government is cutting “half a billion dollars from OHIP services, cutting public health and restructuring to centralize it,” as well as “cutting and restructuring and privatizing land and air ambulance services.”
Hospitals are also facing unsustainable budget constraints, she noted, with funding levels held below the rate of inflation.
“We are hearing from thousands of chronic pain patients who are concerned they are going to lose access to the shots that keep them off opioids,” she said. “We’re hearing from parents of children with autism. We’re hearing from people with Crohn’s and colitis concerned about cuts to colonoscopies.”
Fears are at an “all-time high” across the province, she said, “and we are extremely concerned that there are plans being made in the back rooms of Queen’s Park to privatize significant parts of our health system.”
McKenna, whose union represents more than 65,000 registered nurses and health-care professionals, said her members are concerned for their jobs and workloads, but above all “for the patients they care for.”
She said Ontario is following a path that hasn’t proven effective in other countries and provinces that have attempted similar reforms.
“Jurisdictions that have gone under massive transformation like this have not fared well,” she said. “And it’s the people who haven’t fared well.”
Restructuring attempts in the United Kingdom and Australia, for instance, have failed to the extent that “now they are making a U-turn and coming back to what is a fully public system,” McKenna noted.
The ONA president worries Ontarians aren’t grasping the looming crisis in health care as keenly as they should because they are being “distracted by populist announcements,” such as buck-a-beer and the ability to have tailgate parties.
“Those are the things that are capturing the attention of the media,” she said. “And I’m afraid the public services that people all depend upon won’t be there when they need them.”
McKenna acknowledged Sudbury acts as referral centre for the northeast and caters to “the most complex medical needs” for the area.
It is the smaller, rural hospitals that are most at risk of losing services, or disappearing altogether, she said, but Health Sciences North will suffer, too.
“You’re already full to capacity each and every day,” she said. “The nurses I speak to tell me how burdened the hospital is, and last year there were significant cuts to nurses there. And we know, with this last budget, the government isn’t funding our hospitals even up to inflationary rates.”
McKenna said a 4.5 per cent budget increase would be required for hospitals to simply “keep the lights on, doors open, and maintain staffing levels — and they didn’t get that.”
She said she wants to see public dollars used wisely and efficiently, but hospitals have been “starved” for far too long. “And if they continue to underfund them, they cannot continue to operate. It’s like destruction by design.”
Public health is also taking a huge hit, with funding slashed by more than a quarter and health units to be trimmed from 35 to 10, Mehra pointed out.
“That means the local public health units will be merged, and one big consortium of services for all of northeastern Ontario or all of Northern Ontario,” she said. “Services will be centralized, dramatically.”
Cuts to public health could also hamper efforts to combat the opioid crisis, as health units typically lead the way in creating safe injection sites.
That is true in Sudbury, where Public Health Sudbury and Districts, in collaboration with police and other partners, are currently assessing the need for a safe usage service in the community.
The Ford government has already cancelled all new planned overdose prevention sites, however, and resources to establish a facility in Sudbury will be hard to come by, according to Mehra.
“I think people should continue to seek funding because that’s a really important initiative,” she said. “I understand how needed it is in Sudbury and the area. But it looks like provincial funding is not going to be a possibility, unless people stand up against what the government is doing.”
A leaked plan to privatize air ambulance and laboratories would also be disastrous for our region, she said.
“It’s a model that will absolutely never work for Northern Ontario,” she said. “I think the impact on the North, with this idea that centralization is the way to go, is particularly damaging.”
The health coalition is planning a massive rally at Queen’s Park for next Tuesday, and three busloads of people from Sudbury are set to join as many as 10,000 protesters from elsewhere across the province.
Mehra said it is not too late to stop the overhaul of health care if enough people raise their voices.
“We have done it before,” she said. “We stopped a lot of these types of initiatives, like trying to privatize air ambulance, MRIs and CTs, under Harris.”