Increasing health-care capacity must be a priority: Del Duca

With Ontario’s hospitals on the verge of being overrun with COVID-19 patients again, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca says improving the province’s delicate health-care system must be a top priority for whichever party Ontarians elect in five months.

COVID has repeatedly exposed weaknesses in Ontario’s health-care system, and on Wednesday, the provincial government cancelled non-urgent surgeries at hospitals for the third time since the start of the pandemic.

The latest surgical shutdown is necessary to preserve resources like hospital beds and nurses, as COVID’s rapid spread is expected to put more Ontarians than ever in hospital, says the province.

Some hospitals are already nearing their breaking points. Many large networks like the University Health Network, the William Osler Health System, and Hamilton Health Sciences face serious staffing shortages due to employees contracting COVID, which QP Briefing reported on Tuesday.

The growing wave of cases across Canada is due to the Omicron variant.

While it’s the most transmissible strain of COVID to date, Omicron also seems milder than earlier variants because it isn’t as harmful to people’s lungs, early studies suggest. Data from countries that were hit hard by Omicron before Canada was — such as South Africa, the U.K., and Denmark — have found that Omicron infections are less likely to require hospitalization and intensive care than other variants, and patients are less likely to die.

Still, Premier Doug Ford’s announcement on Monday of cancelled surgeries and the return of near-lockdown restrictions was needed to prevent the province’s hospitals from being overwhelmed, he said. The latest measures replicate others Ontario has taken in the face of infection rates that are lower than in other countries.

But Ontario’s not alone. Hospitals in Canada don’t have the capacity of many of its allies, even though Canadians pay more for health care.

When comparing the number of hospital beds per capita in the 38 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada is eighth from the bottom, even though Canadians are the 13th-biggest spenders on health care. Canada is also seventh from the bottom in number of doctors, and 17th from the bottom in nurses per capita, compared to countries whose data are available on the OECD website.

The pandemic has stretched Canada’s health-care system “dangerously thin,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, in her 2021 year-end report.

Simply put, we were not prepared to face a public-health emergency of the magnitude of COVID-19,” she said.

At a news conference on Wednesday with four Liberal candidates in the June election who work in health care, Del Duca demanded that the Ford government call in reinforcements to help Ontario’s faltering hospitals.

While responding to questions from iPolitics, Del Duca said his party was in the midst of planning to fix systemic problems in Ontario health care.

“The health-care crisis we’re in has been building for quite some time,” said Del Duca, who was a cabinet minister in Ontario’s previous Liberal government.

“I think that we, collectively — and this goes across party lines — have not always been focused on making sure we can build the most resilient and robust universal public-health-care system that we possibly can.

During the 2018 election campaign, which led to the Liberals’ ouster after 15 years, Ford promised to end “hallway health care,” referring to the abundance of patients being treated in hospital hallways because of long wait times or a shortage of rooms and beds. The phenomenon in Ontario worsened while the Liberals were in government.

Del Duca also said Wednesday that improving Ontario’s health system should be a top priority for whichever government is elected in June, along with “publicly funded education, and an economic recovery that is fair and just for everyone.”

“Those are the … foundational pillars that will need to take up the lion’s share of the next premier of Ontario’s attention, and the resources, and the ideas,” he added.

Ford is allied with Canada’s other premiers in asking Ottawa for bigger health-transfer payments.

When Canada’s publicly funded medicare system was established in the 1960s, the federal government agreed to cover 50 per cent of the cost. Since then, Ottawa’s cost-sharing agreement with the provinces has changed many times. The federal government now pays 23 per cent, while the premiers want it to cover 35 per cent. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s open to renegotiating the deal, but only once the pandemic’s over.

Del Duca’s No. 1 demand of Ford on Wednesday was that he ask Ottawa to deploy soldiers to nursing homes and hospitals in Ontario that are short staff. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner have also said this should happen, if required.

In addition, Del Duca asked the government to: recall the legislature to repeal Bill 124, which limits increases to nurses’ pay; speed up the process for recognizing foreign-trained nurses’ credentials; ask health professionals like dentists and chiropodists to volunteer to administer COVID vaccines; and make it easier for hospital staff to transfer between hospitals temporarily.

With files from Jack Hauen.

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