Ontario’s Public Health Services:
Creeping to the brink of collapse
I am getting a bit concerned about Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s welfare. Seeing him across the aisle when the House sits, he looks fine. But I have noticed something that maybe he and others close to him just are not aware of at the moment. Yet, the problem seems quite apparent to many Ontarians. I am starting to think that maybe Mr. Ford is becoming somewhat tone-deaf. I say this because when it comes to healthcare in Ontario, alarm bells are ringing high, low, left, right and center, and he doesn’t even seem to hear a thing. Perhaps it is because the bells have been loudly ringing all around him for so long that he has become oblivious.
Since December, News from the Park has explored hospital medical staffing issues, meetings I had with all Algoma-Manitoulin hospital administrators, the desperate need for more in-home care training and staff and the oversight of long-term care facilities. Each of these healthcare issues has bells with their own distinct sound that ring out specific problems. Each bell toll tells Mr. Ford how people are suffering and how it will only worsen if he doesn’t take action.
If there is anything we learned – or at least should have learned – from the pandemic, we cannot possibly afford to sit back and simply react to situations as they arise as we did. We need to be ready to act. As Grandma said, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Most of us are hardly even aware of the critical role that Public Health Units (PHUs) play in keeping us healthy and safe from disease and illness locally. PHUs focus on preventing and controlling all manner of communicable diseases. They inspect public places and businesses like restaurants to ensure proper cleanliness and procedures are followed in food preparation. They provide us with information and programs about sexually transmitted diseases, smoking cessation, and support and advice on healthy lifestyles. And one of the most important responsibilities is to provide the public with vaccines to keep viral infections at bay.
With lessons learned, it is most perplexing that the government has become so complacent about public health, believing that the COVID threat is in the rearview mirror. But here we are in 2024, and it is obvious government officials were wrong about infectious viruses being in our rearview mirror. Ontario is again seeing hallway medicine rearing its vicious head with sudden rises in flu, respiratory and gastro viruses. Patients are languishing on gurneys in emergency department hallways for up to 72 hours waiting for a bed.
There is great concern for Ontario’s public health services, which have been creeping closer to the brink of collapse because of habitual underfunding and even cutbacks. And the people of Algoma-Manitoulin are not immune to this looming issue. Premier Ford believes the answer is to find efficiencies by reducing the number of PHUs in Ontario. In 2019, the Province proposed reducing PHUs from 35 down to 10. This was subsequently put on the backburner due to the pandemic, but the proposal is up and running again. To entice PHUs to amalgamate with a unit of their own choosing, the government is bribing units with one-time funding to amalgamate voluntarily. On November 23, 2023, CBC News reported that Algoma PH was looking into the potential of amalgamating with Sudbury-Manitoulin PH. This would create a ginormous territory.
CBC reports that the response from most municipalities ranges from guarded to suspicious. Sault mayor Matthew Shoemaker said he questions the Province’s true motivation on this issue. He is quoted as saying, “I question the commitment not to reduce staff. It seems if their objective in 2019 was to save $200 million, that’s probably still their objective, it’s just not being said.”
PHUs in the North already serve vast areas comprising dozens of communities with unique needs and circumstances. The realities facing Northern PHUs are different from those in urban and southern parts of Ontario. Southern cookie-cutter set-ups won’t necessarily work up here. Also, offering additional funds only to PHUs that can manage such restructuring puts Northerners at a disadvantage, who have been coping with decades of underfunding of public health services.
Following up on this story locally, The Sault Star interviewed Algoma Public Health administrators. The paper reported in the January 13, 2023 edition that, while APH claimed any organizational and funding changes would not impact the services provided, they did acknowledge that a “limited workforce reduction” would be necessary to balance a new budget.
But here is the thing. APH is already behind the 8-ball with current staffing. According to the Sault Star, APH has a backlog of 6000 families with overdue child vaccines that are needed. Each child will have to be looked up, and the family will be contacted by letter and then vaccinated. Ontario Nursing Association president Erin Ariss says that in the case of APH, “Nurses in the immunization program are completely overwhelmed with the thousands of vaccines that need to be provided to children.” Yet, despite the overwhelming backlog, APH has axed three nursing positions and is part of 6 jobs within the board overall.
To be clear, this situation is not the fault of APH leadership. They have no choice but to do their best with the funding dollars given. The Sault Star quoted Dr. Jennifer Loo, APH Medical Officer of Health and CEO, “Provincial dollars have not kept pace with inflationary pressures. We continue to seek funding opportunities as we’ve always done and have been very diligent at working at efficiencies with potential for cost savings across the board.”
The people of Algoma-Manitoulin and all of Northern Ontario deserve better.
Premier Ford has had a full term and a half to save Ontario’s precious public healthcare system. Let’s not kid ourselves; it was a mess when he inherited it from the Liberals. But instead of fixing it, he is determined to lead (or push us) down a path leading to a colossal collapse of cost-cutting and privatization that can never be restored.
At this very moment, Premier Ford has $416 million in unspent funds allocated for public health. The Financial Accountability Office identified this money. It should be used to restore total, reliable funding to PHUs. We need stable financing for public health in the North to tackle the healthcare crisis found in Algoma-Manitoulin and the communities of the Northern region.
Many have heard the incredible bell ringing in London whenever there is a special celebration such as a Royal wedding. The sound is deafening, and you can’t escape it anywhere in the city. In this case, the bells are ringing in every corner of this province, yet Mr. Ford can’t seem to hear them. Or, worse, perhaps he is like Odysseus of Greek mythology, who had the ears of his ship crew members stuffed with beeswax so they would not hear the siren’s song leading them toward certain death on the rocks of the Island of Circe. Perhaps the Premier has ordered his cabinet ministers to use beeswax also.
I guarantee you that my office team and I do not have beeswax in our ears. We hear the alarm bells that public health, hospital staff, homecare, and long-term care workers ringing loud and clear. And, of course, we hear the constituents also pulling on the ropes from their homes. We are running out of time. Once we lose our healthcare, the silence and sorrow for many will be eternal.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député