Ford’s plan to expand private clinics in Ontario will cost patients, critics say

On Monday, Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones discussed the province’s three-step plan to reduce surgical wait times by expanding the role of community surgical and diagnostic centres.

“When it comes to your health, the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Ford said. “Our government is taking bold action to reduce wait times for surgeries, all while ensuring Ontarians use their OHIP card to get the care they need, never their credit card.”

Step one involves the province tackling the existing backlog for cataract surgeries, which has one of the longest waits for procedures. This will involve new partnerships with community surgical and diagnostic centres in Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Ottawa, with 14,000 additional cataract surgeries that will be performed each year (representing up to 25% of the province’s current cataract waitlist, and accounts for the estimated COVID-related backlog of cataract surgeries).

The province plans to invest more than $18 million in existing centres to cover care for thousands of patients, including more than 49,000 hours of MRI and CT scans, 4,800 cataract surgeries, 900 other ophthalmic surgeries, 1,000 minimally invasive gynecological surgeries, and 2,845 plastic surgeries (e.g., hand soft tissue repair).

Step two involves expanding the scope of community surgical and diagnostic centres to address regional needs, with a focus on cataracts, MRI and CT imaging, and colonoscopy and endoscopy procedures. These procedures will be non-urgent, low-risk, and minimally invasive. In addition to shortening wait times, the province believes this will allow hospitals to focus their resources on more complex–high-risk surgeries.

In step three, the government will introduce legislation in February that will, if passed, allow existing community diagnostic centres to conduct more MRI and CT scanning so that people can access publicly funded diagnostic services faster and closer to home. Beginning in 2024, the province plans to expand surgeries for hip and knee replacements.

“Timely and convenient access to surgery and diagnostic imaging is critical to keeping people healthy,” Jones said. “This plan will boost the availability of publicly funded health services in Ontario, ensuring that Ontarians currently waiting for specialized surgeries will have greater access to the world class care they need, where and when they need it.”

Critics, however, are concerned about the Ford government’s plan to “siphon provincial funding to private,” for-profit surgical clinics, calling it “a risky venture that will cost Ontarians dearly” and damage access to public care.

Five major Ontario healthcare unions—CUPE/OCHU, Ontario Nurses’ Association, OPSEU/SEFPO, SEIU Healthcare, and Unifor—say that this move will further starve Ontario’s public healthcare system of funding and divert front-line staff to private shareholders, diminishing access to publicly-delivered healthcare.

“Patients will wait even longer for healthcare under this scheme and should not be misled into believing they will not pay out of pocket,” the Ontario Nurses’ Association wrote in a statement, noting that, rather than divert funding from public hospital care to privatized clinics, the government should invest in the public healthcare system, implement a substantive public hospital staffing retention program, and fund its public hospitals at the rate of the Canadian hospital average to deal with population growth, ageing, and inflationary pressures.

“This move runs counter to the principles of our public health care system,” Naureen Rizvi, Unifor’s Ontario Regional Director said in a statement. “Doug Ford is allowing private clinics to profit by performing these essential health procedures, which is not a solution to our health care crisis. It will simply make this crisis worse by exacerbating the staffing shortages in our public system and diverting funding away from public hospitals and clinics.”

According to the province, community surgical and diagnostic centres will coordinate with local public hospitals to accept patients who are being referred, ensuring people get the surgery they need as quickly as possible.

The province is optimistic that surgical wait lists will return to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023, barring operational issues.

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