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Column: Deafening silence on health care

Ontario’s economic growth has been disappointing for a number of years. Its cumulative debt is $270 billion and growing, greater than all the other provinces combined. There is agreement on these facts.
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Spending on health care consumes $50 billion a year and 50 per cent of the provincial budget, this in a province with a huge debt and deficit. Yet our politicians do not consider it a priority during the election campaign. File photo.
Ontario’s economic growth has been disappointing for a number of years. Its cumulative debt is $270 billion and growing, greater than all the other provinces combined.

There is agreement on these facts. How to fix the problem is being hotly debated in the run up to the June 12 provincial election.

Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne is running on a platform of stimulating the economy through spending on infrastructure and social services. Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is pledging to eliminate 100,000 jobs from the public sector, balancing the budget and reducing taxes.

I have been following the news daily to discover how our parties stand on health care.

Hudak has said that he would not cut the jobs of doctors and nurses. NDP leader Andrea Horwath is promising to pay people taking care of ill or aging relatives and would hire 250 more nurse practitioners to cut down on emergency room waiting times in Ontario’s 146 public hospitals.

They both propose to scrap the Local Health Integration Networks, although similar organizations are given more authority in every other province in Canada. Wynne has said all Ontarians would have guaranteed access to around-the-clock primary health care by 2018.

One of the big criticisms leveled at our health-care system is that it is disjointed, that it lacks co-ordination. This is not surprising. Over the years, successive governments have developed the habit of announcing specific programs and services helter skelter, without an overarching plan or vision.

The current approach was enunciated in a recent Globe and Mail interview with Ontario’s new deputy health minister, Robert Bell.

“Ontario can and should improve the health services it provides to patients without spending more money,” the former head of the Toronto University Health Network said.

While everyone is in favour of improved efficiency, this is not a substitute for reform. Royal commissions have studied the problem and many learned reports have been written, though without follow up. Then, every few years, when there are economic challenges, like now, we slam the brakes on overall spending.

Let me put this in a local context. Some of our wait times for surgical procedures are the worst in the province and getting longer. Funding for home care cannot keep up with increasing demand. Many individuals cannot afford some of the marvelous, but extremely expensive, new drugs that can treat formerly untreatable diseases.

Many of our most complex patients get their care in walk-in clinics because they cannot find a physician.

There is no better time than during an election to debate what a government should and should not fund out of taxes. It should admit unashamedly that it cannot cover all things for all of the people all of the time.

This has become increasingly clear.

We need to recognize the demand for health-care services is virtually infinite, and new products and services will continue to be made available at a relentless pace. I find the overall minimal attention paid to health care by our political parties irresponsible.

Spending on health care consumes $50 billion a year and 50 per cent of the provincial budget, this in a province with a huge debt and deficit. Yet our politicians do not consider it a priority during the election campaign.

Please talk and write to your candidates for office. Ask about a vision. To date, the silence is deafening.

Dr. Peter Zalan is president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective.


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