Groups that could be affected by a major overhaul of the province’s health system say they are troubled they have been left out of the loop.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he was surprised to learn through the media that government officials have proposed “outsourcing” the ORNGE air ambulance service. Approximately 60 per cent of ORNGE’s transports are from northern Ontario, including from First Nation communities.
The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) said it too is concerned it has not been consulted about health reforms that appear to be well underway.
The provincial New Democrats caught the provincial government off guard by releasing to the media leaked government documents on proposed and planned health restructuring — one batch earlier this week and the other the week before.
The documents state that Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet approved “the full health-care transformation plan” at a Jan. 16 cabinet meeting. The documents included draft legislation to create a health “super agency” out of more than 20 smaller agencies, including local health integration networks (LHINs) and Cancer Care Ontario.
Although ORNGE was on the list, Health Minister Christine Elliott has said it will not be privatized.
She has tried to play down the leaks, telling the media that while “transformation” is coming, nothing has been “finalized” and that the government will continue to consult with the public.
Fiddler said he is not quite sure what is happening but was puzzled to learn through the media that ORNGE has even been on the table: “It’s concerning that these discussions may be happening without involving those who would be most impacted.”
As part of Ontario’s health system, ORNGE has access to some of the province’s premier critical care and trauma specialists who provide consultations to remote, mainly Indigenous communities, former deputy health minister Dr. Bob Bell explained.
“If ORNGE’s responsibilities were outsourced to the lowest bidder, it is unlikely that citizens would have access to the same quality of medical consultation that ORNGE provides,” he warned.
The leaked documents warn that shuttering LHINs could result in a “service disruption” and labour disruption with ONA.
A written statement provided by ONA on Friday said the organization, which represents 65,000 nurses and health-care professionals, is in the dark about what to expect:
“ONA does not have any information about whether these policies may or may not be government policy. ONA is in contact with the premier’s office and the ministry of health, which we are hopeful will lead to further engagement around the government’s planning for Ontario’s health-care system.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told caucus members on Friday, the last day of a three-day retreat in Durham Region, that the party plans to hold the government to account on the reforms when the Legislature resumes sitting in just over a week.
“A looming overhaul of health-care delivery … will open the door to for-profit corporations getting access to public health-care dollars,” she warned.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked by the media on Thursday about the NDP’s concerns that Ontario is opening the door to two-tier health care.
He responded that the federal government will always stand up for its responsibilities to defend the Canada Health Act and ensure universal access to a strong health-care system, The Canadian Press reported.
Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, took to Twitter to call on the prime minister to put his money where his mouth is:
“Personally I feel this is posturing. Ontario hospitals are overcapacity but the (Government) of Canada is on the retreat when it comes to health-care transfers. Without adequate financial federal support it will be that much more difficult to end hallway health care.”
Meantime, the Star has learned a recruitment firm is already searching for a CEO to head the new super agency. It is seeking an individual with a business background as opposed to health-care expertise, said a source close to government who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source was not authorized to speak to the media.
Theresa Boyle is a Toronto-based reporter covering health. Follow her on Twitter: @theresaboyle