Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Health-care facilities across the province (from hospitals to long-term-care facilities) have searched out dollar-stretching efficiencies for years – and yet further ideas are always possible, as heard at Thursday’s all-candidates meeting in a packed gymnasium at Ganaraska Trail Public School in Port Hope.
Progressive Conservative Party candidate David Piccini, NDP candidate Jana Papuckoski, Green Party candidate Jeff Wheeldon, Trillium Party of Ontario candidate Derek Sharp and Liberal incumbent Lou Rinaldi shared their thoughts on this important topic in response to questions from audience members and moderator Lynda Kay.
Funding – or, rather underfunding – was a theme. Papuckoski referred not only to 15 years of Liberal underfunding but to the Conservatives before them, who laid off 6,000 nurses, closed 28 hospitals and slashed hospital beds. She warned of deeper cuts to come in case of a victory for provincial Conservative leader Doug Ford, and called for a moratorium on the lay-offs of health-care professionals and more hospital beds to address overcrowding.
“We need to restore hospital funding to keep up with inflation, population growth, aging and the changing needs of our communities,” she stated.
Piccini reported that he had spoken to doctors, 63% of whom told him that the biggest health-care issue is funding.
“One of the key elements for this party is ensuring we are streamlining, and making sure we are not working in silos,” he said.
Asked for her ideas on reducing wait times, Papuckoski said, “I don’t want to sound like we need to throw money at everything, but that’s pretty well what we have to do, with frozen budgets under the previous government for 15 years. We need to play catch-up at this point because, if we want these services to remain public and provide a quality level of care, we need to provide investment in it.
“We will open up over 2,000 hospital beds and the funding required to operate those beds to reduce wait times.”
More universality was suggested by several of the candidates, including Wheeldon – who said that, in his experience, government only covers about one-third of a person’s health costs.
“We want pharmacare and dental care, so no one ends up in the ER with a medication problem because they can’t afford the meds,” he said.
“If we can invest more in the front end of health care, we will save money overall.”
Papuckoski pledged universal dental care – at least for those who do not already have an employer- or pension-provided plan.
“It would be a service that would save you money,” she figures.
“Getting care in a timely manner means not needing a lot of unnecessary medications and anti-inflammatories for what should just be a trip to the dentist.”
Sharp supports universal dental care for the three groups the Trillium Party has identified as the most vulnerable – those with mental-health issues, those with developmental disabilities and vulnerable seniors.
Piccini referred to the bureaucratization of the health-care system, “taking decision-making out of our health-care providers’ hands and putting it with bureaucrats.”
Sharp said it also bleeds away money.
“With every set of bureaucracy the money has to funnel down through, it’s another step of taking money out of the cookie jar and out of your pocket,” he said.
Sharp called for the elimination of the 14 Local Health Integration Networks the Liberals established.
“We would support all programs that would help people get the services they need faster, easier and with less wait times and less bureaucracy,” he said.
“In any increase, we will prioritize front-line workers over administration,” Wheeldon added.
The doctor shortage has hit Wheeldon hard. Without a family doctor of his own, he must resort to emergency-room visits and spend hours waiting for something that would have taken minutes in a family-doctor setting.
Sharp pledged a focus on doctors with foreign credentials and helping them begin practicing in Ontario as quickly as possible.
“Doctors who have been practicing in another country 10 years or more are good doctors,” he noted.
“We are sending foreign doctors to Alberta and New York because we have nothing available.”
This strategy will include registered professional nurses and specialists, he added.
Even so, Rinaldi said, his government could boast 6,000 more physicians since 2003 and a higher staff-to-patient ratio.
A persistent problem with many hospitals (including local ones) is known as ALC, or Alternate Level of Care. This refers to patients who are no longer in need of acute care, but not well enough to be discharged anywhere other than to a situation where they can be cared for (usually a bed in a long-term-care facility). If this is not possible, the patient continues to occupy a bed and receives a provincially mandated level of care.
Piccini pledged his party would invest in 1,500 more long-term-care beds over the next 10 years to ease this strain on hospital resources.
Papuckoski pledged 2,000 such beds.
Rinaldi pledged 30,000 over the next 10 years.
Mental health was also mentioned as a concern. Papuckoski said party leader Andrea Horwath will establish a ministry of mental health to ensure overlaps and gaps in service are addressed, a replacement for what she called “the convoluted framework where those who need help fall through the cracks.”
Vulnerable populations often have a lesser level of access to health-care services, all agreed.
Wheeldon promised improved access for rural and First Nation communities.
Those vulnerable for economic reasons must not be forgotten, Papuckoski said. In spite of the minimum-wage hike, life is a precarious business for so many. The NDP wants to eliminate the resulting gaps and barriers – for example, ensuring seniors can always afford their medications.
Rinaldi agreed with that last example, pointing out that his government had already instituted universal pharmacare for those under 25 years of age.
As for seniors, he added, the government supports a $750 stipend for those over 75 and still in their own homes, a little boost to help them afford help with their yard care, window cleaning and other onerous chores – and stay in their homes that much longer.
Piccini favours more support for personal-care workers, who help people in their homes who might not otherwise be able to remain independent. From talking with them now, he understands they are severely limited in how much time they have to give each client, and believes this must change.
“Home care should be part of our public universal health-care system, and we will work to keep it public and not-for-profit,” Papuckoski said.
The effort to help those under the poverty line will necessarily bleed over into social policy, Sharp pointed out, as they work to ensure everyone has access to proper housing and nutritious food.
“We have to improve access to the progtams and education they need,” he said.
Wheeldon said the Green Party believes in a univeral income guarantee.
“No one has to prove they’re sick. No one has to prove they’re disabled. No one has to prove they can’t get a job. Everyone, even the poorest, will receive the same benefit,” he said.
“For the rich, obviously, it’s taxed back.”
Piccini said his party has seen the studies that support such a plan, and are willing to look into the concept. Meanwhile, they have other ideas, like not requiring that anyone on minimum wage pay income tax.
Rinaldi said the minimum-wage hike his government instituted will go a step further – to $15 an hour – by Jan. 1, 2020.
The focus of the evening was almost exclusively local, the names of the provincial party leaders rarely heard. Those leaders are Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath for the Liberal, Conservative and NDP parties (respectively), with Mike Shreiner leading the Green Party provincially and Bob Yaciuk serving as Trillium Party of Ontario leader.