Ontario has released a new “connected” and “convenient” health-care plan aimed at shortening wait times and localizing access to care across the province.
Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones announced details about the plan, “Your Health: A Plan for Connected and Convenient Care,” during a press conference on Thursday morning in Toronto.
The announcement comes as Ontario battles a crisis that has touched nearly every aspect of the health-care system, from staffing shortages to substantial surgical wait lists.
“When it comes to your health and the health of all Ontarians, the status quo isn’t working,” Jones said at the Thursday announcement.
The government also released a 50-page report, outlining three broad pillars as a framework for the province’s health-care plan moving forward: The Right Care in the Right Place, Faster Access to Care and Hiring More Health Care Workers.
“Some of these changes will happen immediately as we take action to address pressing issues. Other changes will take time. They will be phased in over the months and years ahead,” Jones said.
This plan comes on the heels of the government’s new three-step approach to expand for-profit surgical and diagnostic centres.
Ontario doctors have said investing in private health-care will only exacerbate staffing shortages and wait times for urgent care.
Ontario NDP health critic and MPP, France Gelinas, said Thursday that residents should not be “fooled” by the Ford government’s new plan, claiming it is poised to privatize the health-care sector.
“The Ford government created a crisis in our health care system by grossly underfunding it, capping workers’ wages, and driving health care professionals out of the system,” Gelinas said in a statement.
“Giving private, for-profit clinics freedom to offer health care services will mean that those who can afford to pay will get better, faster care while everyone else will be forced to wait longer.”
Gelinas adds that the province should instead end Bill 124, and carry out a massive staff recruitment and retention plan where they get paid fairly.
The first Pillar, “The Right Care in the Right Place,” hones in on localizing health-care in Ontario.
To do so, the government said they are expanding their team-based approach to health-care, mental health supports, and medications prescribed at pharmacies.
The government said it is working to add four additional Ontario Health Teams to their 54 existing ones to help patients transition between health-care providers and ensure patient’s medical records follow them wherever they seek care. This will add up to 1,200 physicians to this model over the next two years, the government said.
The plan outlines the addition of eight youth wellness hubs, on top of the 14 pre-existing ones, which works to help young people connect to mental health and substance use supports, primary care and social services.
While mental illness accounts for about 10 per cent of the burden on the health-care system in Ontario, it receives just seven per cent of health care dollars, according to the Centre for Addition and Mental Health (CAMH).
The hospital says this shortfall, totalling almost $1.5 billion, creates an ever-widening gap in the system’s ability to deliver timely intervention.
The government also reiterated their expansion of 13 medications that pharmacists can now prescribe, a change that began on Jan 1.
At long last, the government said it is “axing the fax,” by eliminating the old-school machinery from doctor’s offices and replacing them with “digital communication alternatives” within the next five years.
The second pillar, “Faster Access to Care,” aims to tackle long wait times, the government said.
According to the plan, this will first be addressed by tackling the existing backlog for cataract surgeries – which Ontario says has the longest waits – by issuing four new licences to health centres in Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Ottawa, the government said.
The province said it is also investing millions more in existing centres to tackle wait times for MRI and CT scans, ophthalmic surgeries, minimally invasive gynecological surgeries and plastic surgeries.
These additions come alongside the heavily-criticized $18 million for-profit investments the government announced last month.
The government plan said it has provided paramedics more flexibility when they treat certain patients who call 911, by granting them the ability to treat them in their community rather than in emergency rooms.
“Patients diverted from emergency rooms through these initiatives received the care they needed up to 17 times faster with 94 per cent of patients avoiding the emergency room in the days following treatment,” the 50-page report reads.
For long-term care, Ontario says by adding nearly 60,000 new and upgraded beds it can help tackle waitlists and ensure seniors get the care they need in the right place.
According to a progress update released last month, 40,000 people are currently waiting for long-term care in Ontario. The current wait list has nearly doubled in the last decade.
“That is more than the populations of a midsize town such as Bradford, Orillia, Stratford, Orangeville, or Leamington,” Donna Duncan, CEO of Ontario Long-Term Care Association, said on Jan. 13.
The final pillar, “Hiring More Health Care Workers,” will work to expand the province’s workforce through hiring, training and education initiatives.
Over the next five years, the province said it will expand its education program by adding 10 undergraduate seats and 295 postgraduate positions at medical schools.
At the moment, nearly 1.8 million Ontarians don’t have a regular family physician, according to a recent research study. In just the first six months of the pandemic, more than 170,000 patients in Ontario lost their family doctors.
The province said it will also expand its “Learn and Stay” grant starting this spring, which will be open for about 2,500 eligible postsecondary students.
The grant covers educational costs, such as tuition and books, for those who enroll in “high-priority programs” in underserved communities – like nursing, paramedic and medical laboratory science – in exchange for working in those communities for up to two years following graduation.
The government reiterated their new “As of Right” rules, which eliminated the registration requirement for out-of-province health-care workers in an effort to lower the barrier of entry for practicing in Ontario. The report also outlines the government’s efforts to make it “easier” and “faster” for international nurses to practice in the province.
However, the president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association has said these efforts would “in no way immediately fix Ontario’s severe nursing shortage.”
“Internationally educated nurses will need supervision and mentoring when they enter the workplace,” Cathryn Hoy said at the time. “The nursing shortage means there is no one to do this.”
The plan nods to a new portable benefits program in the works, which the government has referenced in the past as a way to attach health benefits to individual workers instead of employers. There were no additional details on what these benefits would entail or when they would roll it out.