Health Sector Calls for Ontario Budget Investments Beyond Hospitals

Ontario’s upcoming budget will lay out a roadmap for recovering from COVID-19, possibly serving as a Progressive Conservative campaign platform, and many are calling on the government to strengthen the health care system by looking beyond hospitals.

From hospitals to long-term care to laboratories, the healthcare sector has borne much of the brunt of the impact of the pandemic.

The government has injected more than $5 billion into hospitals to add 3,100 beds since the pandemic began and the Ontario Hospital Association has said the investments are welcome.

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Now, to maintain financial stability for hospitals as they restart pandemic-delayed surgeries and procedures and continue to manage other COVID-19 pressures, they need a 3.5% increase in funding from base operations, or $735 million, the OHA said in its pre-budget submission.

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Additionally, the hospital association is seeking dedicated funding to reduce the backlog of surgeries and ongoing funding for additional beds that have been committed over the past two years.

The Progressive Conservative government is extending its own deadline for presenting the next budget until April 30, when the June 2 election campaign begins.

A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said he “understands the importance of investing in health care to create a more sustainable system in Ontario.”

Contributing to the pressures in hospitals is the need for greater funding elsewhere, the OHA noted. As of mid-January, there were 5,800 alternate level of care patients — people who could be cared for in a different setting like home care or long-term care — which is a record, said the OHA.

“ALC continues to be a clear and present danger,” the association wrote in its brief. “This situation reflects reduced and insufficient capacity in long-term care as well as in home and community services.

Dr. Adam Kassam, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said that even before the pandemic, in 2019-20, there were 1.3 million “hospital days” used by patients on another level care, which cost $650 million.

“The math is clear: providing care in more appropriate settings would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in healthcare costs,” he said.

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Ontario lifts mask mandate in most settings March 21, all guidelines by April 27'

COVID-19: Ontario lifts mask mandate in most settings March 21, all guidelines by April 27

COVID-19: Ontario lifts mask mandate in most settings March 21, all guidelines by April 27

Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, told the Legislature’s pre-budget committee that while the government has distributed “unprecedented funding” to the sector during the pandemic, the costs of COVID-19 exceeded initial estimates.

For the fiscal year ending this month, the sector faces additional costs of $270 million, and based on these trends, costs for 2022 and 2023 are estimated at $800 million, Duncan said. .

“Homes are focused on protecting their residents and staff and spending whatever it takes, but many face financial instability as a result,” she said.

Sue VanderBent, CEO of Home Care Ontario, told the committee that the government’s massive investments in hospitals and long-term care have come at the expense of home care.

“We’ve lost almost 4,000 nurses, thousands of personal support workers and hundreds of therapists,” she said. “Many of these employees were attracted by the higher wages offered in hospitals, long-term care and public health, where the government pays much more for people to work than for home care.”

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Home care needs an immediate investment of $460 million to stabilize it and address wage inequities, VanderBent said.

The government announced $548 million over three years for home care in its fall economic update.

Rick Firth, CEO of Hospice Palliative Care Ontario, said caring for someone in a palliative care bed is about a third of the cost of care in hospital. More than 40% of hospice admissions come from hospitals, so better funding for palliative care would ease acute care pressures in hospitals, Firth said.

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“Currently, only nursing and (personal support worker) costs are funded, and there are other costs, including patient care supplies, medical directors, psychosocial care, nutrition and cleaning and infection control equipment, which are not funded,” he told the Committee.

“In a hospital, all of these costs would be covered at 100% and at three times the cost.”

Hospice Palliative Care Ontario is asking for $43.2 million a year to fully cover those costs, Firth said.

CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions is one of many public sector unions calling on the government to repeal Bill 124, which capped public sector wage increases at 1%. Meanwhile, inflation is over five percent, leaving workers falling further behind, said Doug Allan, a senior union research officer.

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Dianne Martin, CEO of the Association of Licensed Practical Nurses of Ontario, said a $3-per-hour pandemic wage supplement the government has given to support workers nobody — rightly so, she said — has resulted in a squeeze on RPN salaries. In some cases, RPNs are paid less than the PSSPs they supervise.

“As you can imagine, for APNs, it’s unfair and demoralizing and gives them very little reason to stay in the healthcare profession,” Martin said.

The temporary bump for PSWs — which is currently set to expire on March 31 — should be made permanent, she said, and retroactively extended to IPAs.

The Association of Medical Laboratory Professionals of Ontario is calling on the government to invest $6.2 million over four years in training and clinical placements.

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Laboratories are already understaffed, the group said in a statement, and are set to face even more pressure as the Ontario Medical Association estimates the pandemic has caused a backlog of 20 million surgeries, procedures, treatments, tests and doctor visits.

The Ontario Public Health Association has called on the government to reverse funding cuts to public health units made in its 2019 budget. In addition to a surgical backlog, the pandemic has caused a backlog in prevention services offered by public health units, including oral health, sexual health and resources for new parents.

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The Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine is also calling on the government to reverse its decision in Budget 2019 to cut the organization’s $5 million in annual funding.

“At a time when the unprecedented commercial value of stem cell technologies is just beginning to be realized, Ontario’s stem cell innovators are now at a crossroads,” he said in a statement.

“Without continued funding, Ontario risks losing its competitive edge and the opportunity to benefit from the growing commercial sector of regenerative medicine.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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