Health Insurance

UPDATE: Ontario unveils three-step plan to address hospital wait times, surgical backlog

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province will require new facilities to provide “detailed staffing plans” as part of an application and mandate a number of physicians at various centers to have active privileges at their local hospital.

Ontario’s government announced a three-step plan to reduce and improve surgery waiting times across the province as hospitals grapple with an overwhelmed and overworked healthcare system.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement in Toronto alongside Health Minister Sylvia Jones.

The Ford government said it’s “leveraging community surgical and diagnostic centers” to eliminate surgical backlogs and reduce wait times.

Ford said the province will require new facilities to provide “detailed staffing plans” as part of an application and mandate a number of physicians at various centers to have active privileges at their local hospital.

“When it comes to your health, the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Ford said on Monday, Jan. 16. “Our government is taking bold action to reduce wait times for surgeries, all while ensuring Ontarians use their OHIP cards to get the care they need, never their credit cards.”

In a government news release, the province outlines the three steps. Step one will include “urgently tackling the existing backlog for cataract surgeries,” which the government says is one of the longest waits for procedures.

“Partnerships with community surgical and diagnostic centers in Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa will add 14,000 additional cataract surgeries that will be performed each year,” the province noted.

“This number represents up to 25 per cent of the province’s current cataract wait list and accounts for the estimated COVID-related backlog of cataract surgeries.”

Ford and Health Minister Jones said the procedures will continue to be paid for by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). However, critics worry about what the plan will do for hospital staffing and say patients are sometimes pushed to pay out of pocket for add-ons at the private clinics.

Step two focuses solely on reducing wait times. The province says it will address regional needs with a continued emphasis on cataracts, MRI and CT imaging and colonoscopy and endoscopy procedures.

In step three, the Ford government says it plans to introduce legislation next month that will aim to allow existing community diagnostic centers to perform more MRI and CT scanning so residents can access publicly funded diagnostic services “faster and closer to home.”

Health Minister Jones said that starting in 2024, the province will also 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 surgeons will have greater access to the world-class care they need, where and when they need it.”’

Government sources indicated that the province intended to unveil a multi-phase plan to start performing thousands of publicly funded surgeries in private clinics in an effort to tackle a massive backlog.

The sources say the goal is to take low acuity, low complexity surgeries outside the beleaguered hospital system.

Ford hinted at the move last week, saying the province needs independent health facilities to address the growing surgical backlog and assuring patients they will not have to pay out of pocket for them.

Five Ontario healthcare unions issued a joint statement criticizing the Ford government on the move. They noted that siphoning funding from public hospital care and handing it to private, for-profit surgical clinics is a “risky venture that will cost Ontarians dearly.”

“Despite denying any support for hospital privatization during the last election, the Ford government is slashing public hospital budgets as it aggressively funds for-profit surgical centers,” Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE), said.

“User fees, higher costs, higher death rates and the loss of hospital staff won’t impede this government’s commitment to monetize surgeries. For that, opposition by the hospital workforce and the people of Ontario is needed. Fierce resistance from both will be forthcoming.”

Dr. Christopher Labos, a cardiologist and medical journalism freelancer, told The Sam Laprade Show on Jan. 16 that the news could become a serious disruption to the way healthcare is practiced in Canada.

Dr. Labos said the move is worrisome because it shows a creeping trend towards more privatization in healthcare.

Dr. Labos said this step from the Ontario government could mean a system that may become unrecognizable in 10 years, adding moving away from a public system would be a more expensive solution to the backlogs and paying more out of pocket or through private insurance rather than taxes.

“What matters is not so much the idea that you can do outpatient medicine because frankly, we have been doing outpatient medicine since the beginning of Medicare in Canada,” he said. “It’s how you implement this and the funding structure and what are going to be the long-term impacts from this.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Labos below:

With files from CityNews Ottawa.