TORONTO -- Ontario's Progressive Conservative government spent nearly half-a-billion dollars less on healthcare than it originally planned last year, affecting the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Public Health units and long-term care ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province's Financial Accountability Officer (FAO) examined how much of the 2019-2020 budget was actually spent, and discovered that the government underspent to tune of $3.5 billion—affecting the ministries of health, education, post-secondary education, children and social services and even the interest of debt.

Ontario's Ministry of Health was $466 million under budget by the end of the last fiscal year, according to the financial watchdog—money that, the FAO notes, could have helped the province in its pandemic response.

The FAO said the Population and Public Health budget, "which supports the Chief Medical Officer of Health and aims to promote and protect the public health of Ontario," was $49 million under budget.

The province's budget for Local Health Integration Networks, which directs health care funding to hospitals and long-term care homes, logged $65 million in underspending, according to the FAO.

Watchdog Peter Weltman said that while his office doesn't have the power to investigate the reasons behind the underspending, he notes that ministries are prevented by law from going over-budget and under spending by $466 million is "not material."

Weltman, however, also suggests MPPs should take a critical look at why the province didn't rush to spend the leftover funds at the beginning of the pandemic.

"We kind of knew there was a pandemic in the air as early as Christmas in 2019," Weltman told reporters during an online news conference.

"Arguably there might have been time to not only spend that money but to move money from other programs into health in anticipation of something."

The Doug Ford government later tabled a $17 billion pandemic-related fiscal update in late-March, which included $3.3 billion for the health-care sector.

The FAO was unable to determine whether the unused money from the 2019-2020 was rolled over into the 2020-2021 budget.

The Ministry of Health said that while they value the FAO’s independent analysis, actual spending is expected to vary from a government’s initial plans or projections.

“This is a normal part of the fiscal cycle,” spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

“It’s important to note that funding for the health sector grew by nearly $2 billion in 2019/20 - from $58.1 billion in 18/19 to $60.0 billion in 19/20. This report also represents money that has been spent only by the Ministry and doesn’t account for transfer payments agreements that the Ministry has with a number of partners including hospitals.”

Hilkene went on to say that the final results of the ministry’s finances won’t be available until the Public Accounts of Ontario data is released.

Ontario’s Opposition, meanwhile, argues that the FAO report shows the Ford government cuts to healthcare made Ontario “even less able to respond to COVID-19”

“We knew Doug Ford’s budget was full of callous cuts. What the FAO revealed today is that, throughout the year, Ford twisted the knife even deeper, stripping even more out of health care and seniors care,” New Democratic Party Finance critic Sandy Shaw said in a statement.

“He cut public heath’s budget, then took away another $49 million off during the course of the year. He shortchanged long-term care homes and hospitals, then took away another $65 million. Even as a pandemic approached, Ford was stripping millions upon millions out of the budgets for critical health services.”