Tories promise to boost health-care funds by $6 billion
TORONTO - A Progressive Conservative government would move health care in Ontario to the top of its agenda and boost spending by $6.1 billion over four years, Opposition Leader Tim Hudak promised Tuesday.
Ontario families would also see more beds in nursing homes, more money for home care and doctors in communities that need them if the Tories win the Oct. 6 election, he said.
At the same time, the Tories will get rid of waste and "unnecessary administration," starting with the province's 14 local health integration networks, Hudak said.
"I am making health care our No. 1 priority," he added.
The funding pledge works out to an increase of about three per cent annually, increasing total health spending to $53.7 billion in 2015 from the current $47.6 billion, according to the party.
The federal government, which provides 23 per cent of Ontario's health-care funds, have already vowed to maintain annual increases of six per cent after 2014, when the current funding agreement with the provinces expires.
"Every penny that we get from the Harper government will go into our system, and we'll top it off as well," Hudak said.
Laying out his plan for health care ahead of the election may help dull Liberal attacks on the Tory leader, who has been painted as the second coming of former premier Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution agenda that slashed government spending in the province.
The Liberals wasted no time slamming the Tories -- including Hudak -- for closing hospitals, firing thousands of nurses and lowering standards for seniors in nursing homes when they were last in office.
Hudak's plan for health care has "no credibility," said Health Minister Deb Matthews.
Voters are too smart to fall for Tory promises to cut taxes while reducing hydro bills, boosting health-care spending and eliminating the deficit sooner, she said.
"It's abracadabra politics," Matthews said. "I don't think Houdini himself could pull this off."
But the Liberals don't have much credibility either when it comes to health care, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
The Tories claim they want to cut waste, but they didn't make a "peep" when the NDP were trying to cap the salaries of hospital CEOs, she said. And the Liberals have little to brag about after the eHealth scandal, which saw almost a billion dollars spent over a decade on creating electronic health records with very little to show for it.
"People are going to be hearing a lot of promises over the next couple of months," Horwath said. "I think families know that New Democrats are the ones that will put patients first and ensure that our health-care system is going to be actually ready for the challenges ahead."
Hudak wouldn't provide many specifics about how he would cut waste in health care other than abolishing the local health integration networks, known as LHINs, which have cost $300 million since they were established in 2007.
"That's $300 million that's gone on to a bloated layer of middle management, people who don't spend a single minute with patients, they don't do any surgeries, they don't even plug in an MRI," Hudak said. "I think the LHINs have been a terrible mistake by the McGuinty government. I will close the doors on those LHINs and put every penny into care for patients instead."
Matthews said the networks cost about $70 million a year.
The regional agencies were set up by the Liberal government to make local decisions and distribute billions of dollars to hospitals, clinics, community care and long-term care homes.
But they've come under fire over the last few years for not seeking local input on critical health-care decisions. Last year, Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin slammed a Niagara-area local health integration network for holding "illegal" secret meetings to discuss plans to restructure hospital services and close emergency rooms.
The restructuring included the closure of Fort Erie's emergency department, a move that sparked local protests and questions about whether it contributed to the death of an 18-year-old woman because her ambulance had to travel 20 kilometres to Welland instead.
Hudak vowed Tuesday to reopen the ER in his hometown if he becomes premier.
"My understanding is we're spending a lot more money on ambulance costs, to divert patients elsewhere, longer wait times in places like Niagara Falls and Welland," he said. "I suspect that if we look closely, it may have in fact have cost the (Niagara Health System) more than it has saved."
The Tories are also promising 5,000 new long-term care beds over four years in addition to 35,000 "renovated" beds -- those that are being brought up to newer standards -- over the next 10 years.
Patients who need home care will be able to choose to stay with their current provider or pick a different government-funded provider, the Tories said. The party would also make Ontario's Health Quality Council monitor and report on the performance of the health care system.
Hudak didn't provide many specifics on how he would attract doctors to the province, but said part of the plan involved increasing residency spots for Ontario graduates.
The announcement comes just a few days after senior party officials confirmed a Tory government wouldn't scrap the health tax, despite earlier suggestions that the premium was a greedy tax grab that should be eliminated.
More details are expected to be provided at the party's convention this weekend.
But some say they're concerned that Ontario's publicly funded health-care system may come under attack if the Tories form the next government.
"We're extremely concerned that the Tories would privatize services," said Natalie Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition, a patient advocacy group.
All the parties need to provide more details about their plans for health care, she added.