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Province pledges more help on the way to stabilize healthcare system

Ontario's Health Minister is promising more help soon to allow faster healthcare access for patients and ease the burden on workers.

But the province's plans -- especially for increased privatization of healthcare -- are not being received well by the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA).

On Thursday morning, the province announced plans to add up to 6,000 more health care workers on top of the 13,000 staff already announced in the first phase of the plan. The plan includes adding nurses and personal support workers to get Ontario’s healthcare system moving faster to lower wait times in emergency departments, surgical procedures, and provide more healthcare options in communities.

Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones said this phase of the plan will free up over 2,500 hospital beds so that care is available to those who need it, and expands models of care that provide better, more appropriate care to avoid unnecessary visits to emergency departments.

“When we released our first Plan to Stay Open in March 2022, we made a promise to build an Ontario that is ready for the challenges of tomorrow because we can no longer accept the status quo,” said Jones. “The second phase of our plan will provide the support our health system needs to address the urgent pressures of today while preparing for a potential winter surge so our province and economy can stay open.”

The province also said the next phase of Ontario’s Plan to Stay Open temporarily covers the costs of examination, application, and registration fees for internationally trained and retired nurses, so they can resume or begin caring for patients sooner.

That move was welcomed by the CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, Dr. Doris Grinspun, who noted thousands of internationally trained nurses living in Canada have been waiting years for regulatory registration.

"RNAO commends the government’s intention to accelerate the integration of IENs as one of the urgent actions required to address the nursing crisis. We will continue to partner on programs to retain, recruit and build careers for nurses in our province," said Dr. Grinspun.

Jones promised that nurses for hire from outside of the hospital won't be overused.

Ontario is also expanding 9-1-1 models of care to include additional ailments and is giving paramedics the flexibility to provide better, more appropriate care. Patients diverted from emergency departments through these models received the care they needed up to 17 times faster with 94 per cent of patients avoiding the emergency department in the days following treatment, according to the province.

Jones said the province is also implementing several initiatives to help avoid unnecessary hospitalizations, improve the process for ambulance offloading, and reintroduce respite services in long-term care.

Ontario also plans to introduce legislation to support patients who no longer need hospital treatment and are waiting for a long-term care home.

"Expanding specialized supports for people with complex needs and supporting the transition from hospitals into long-term care, when appropriate, are key pieces of our government’s Plan to Stay Open: Health System Stability and Recovery," said Paul Calandra, Minister of Long-Term Care. "We are taking action to get Ontarians the right care in the right setting, where they can have the best possible quality of life, while freeing up much-needed hospital beds."

Calandra said patients who no longer need to be in the hospital won't be forced out, but are encouraged to open up beds for others who are sicker.

When it comes to getting surgeries back on track, the province plans to spend over $300 million in 2022–23 and is working with hospitals to identify innovative solutions to reduce wait times for surgeries and procedures.

The options to increase surgical capacity include increasing the number of OHIP-covered surgical procedures performed at private, independent health facilities, Jones said.

She also reiterated that when Ontarians need surgery or a diagnosis, they will still be using their OHIP card, adding that "there are no conversations on extra billing" when asked by reporters if the province will commit to maintaining the prohibition on extra billing in Ontario.

"We need to be clear," said Jones. "Ontarians will always access health care with their OHIP card."

Jones did not elaborate on which specific surgeries could be affected by the privatization plans, but did say the places they would go first is "where the infrastructure is already in place."

President and Chief Executive Officer of Ontario Health Matthew Anderson said the goal for hospitals is to reduce surgical wait times and only use private clinics when needed.

The ONA is taking exception with the province's privatization plans, with union representatives saying in a statement that they are "deeply troubled" by it.

"This is a blatant move that will line the pockets of investors, nothing more," noted ONA President Cathryn Hoy, RN. "The evidence is clear: health-care privatization provides worse health outcomes to our patients, and has much higher overhead costs which will be paid by taxpayers. Ontario is deep-diving into privatization that will only benefit shareholders."

Hoy also said the government announcement is nothing more than shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

"Placing patients into vacant long-term care beds and alternative health facilities is another disaster waiting to happen. As we have witnessed over the past two-plus years, our long-term care system is fraught with significant challenges, including nurse and health-care workers’ staffing. Adding more patients and residents will do nothing but create additional chaos," said Hoy.

Ontario is also launching a new emergency department peer-to-peer program to provide additional on-demand, real-time support and coaching from experienced emergency physicians to aid in the management of patients presenting to rural emergency departments and is adding 400 physician residents to support healthcare in rural Ontario.

Jones said the College of Physicians and Surgeons is also being asked to expedite the registration of doctors, including those from out-of-province and who may want to work in rural emergency departments, so they can start working and caring for patients sooner.

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