At an online Town Hall meeting for the Kingston region on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) shone a spotlight on the “public health disaster” it says is “being manufactured by the Ford government in an effort to privatize healthcare in the province.”
OHC is a non-profit organization whose primary goal is to protect and improve the province’s public healthcare system. At the Town Hall meeting, spokespeople for OHC laid out their evidence that public hospitals in Kingston and across the province are being deliberately underfunded and understaffed by the government as a rationale to privatize healthcare services at an unprecedented rate.
Bernie Robinson is the interim president of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), and has been a registered nurse for over 30 years. She described nurses and healthcare professionals as being “stretched well beyond the breaking point. We have been in a crisis mode now for almost three years, and at some point, it truly is not a crisis anymore, it is really a new reality. And I think we all know that this can’t be our new reality. “
“This Ford government is setting the stage to use this crisis to justify their privatization agenda,” she accused, “Ford has taken an understaffed system and made it so much worse by introducing Bill 124. Bill 124 caps the wages of many nurses and healthcare professionals and violates our charter of rights. Ford has refused to work with healthcare professionals to invest and implement meaningful retention and recruitment plans, which is leaving our system severely understaffed with no relief in sight. And now Ford is using this crisis, which he and his team have created, to push this plan to privatize our healthcare.”
Robinson noted that nursing shortages have reached a critical low. “Ontario is the worst in the country when it comes to RNs (Registered Nurses) per capita. Across Canada, there are 830 RNs per hundred thousand people on average, but in Ontario, we only have 668 RNs for every hundred thousand people. To put that in his perspective, that means that just to be at the Canadian average, Ontario needs to hire, almost 25,000 RNs immediately. 25,000.”
What does a staffing shortage of this magnitude look like in practice? Robinson described that it has become commonplace for our nurses to be kept at the hospital for hours after their shift is supposed to end because the next shift is so short-staffed that it’s not possible for them to safely transfer patient care. “We have nurses who are working on maternity floors, for instance, that should have 35 RNs on a shift but there are only 17 or 18 to do the work. We have hospitals where there are more vacant RN positions than there are RNs on staff.”
“The situation has gotten so out of hand that here in Kingston, they were taking on children from Ottawa and Toronto because there weren’t enough beds to accommodate them in their own community during the RSV outbreaks,” she said. “Taking on these patients is the right thing to do to ensure that they receive the care they need, [but] it also adds to the tremendous strain on a short-staffed nursing team.”
She described the nursing workforce as suffering from burnout, exposed often to violent patients, and never sure of what roles they will be expected to perform and for how long.
“They are tired, they are beaten down and they’re worn out,” she said. “We know that nurses are resilient and resourceful and try to do the best they can to always put patient care first… Even in these extremely difficult times, our members have truly found ways to provide the care that they know that all patients need and deserve.”
Robinson alleged that the government has given exaggerated reports of consultation and collaboration. “We have heard the Minister of Health repeatedly say over the last few weeks that she has talked to healthcare professionals. She has not. She has not talked to people on the front lines.”
Robinson noted that nurses are leaving the public system to work for private agencies. “Truly, we can’t blame them. The nurses who make that choice? The agencies let the nurses choose their own hours and they can pay more because, conveniently enough, they are not subjected to Bill 124.”
She expressed concern, however, that the boost in pay rates and less stressful working environments don’t tell the whole picture for a nurse’s career path. “There is a serious cost here,” she alleged. “Those agencies charge outrageous prices [to patients when compared] to public hospitals… [yet] they don’t provide pensions, benefits, or sick days for their nurses, which in the long term, is something that every worker needs. This undermines nursing as a stable career. It undermines our healthcare system by siphoning off precious dollars that just line the corporate pockets.”
Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, which is part of CUPE, spoke next. “The Minister of Health would have you believe that everything that’s happening now in the Ontario hospital system is planned,” he said. “All normal, all planned. Well, I don’t think it’s normal. I think it’s a train wreck, myself.”
He continued, “260,000 people are supposed to work in the Ontario hospital system. But we are 47,000 staff short, and we have a turnover rate of 15% a year. And workloads for those people who are on the job are impossible. Our hospitals are regularly operating at more than 100 per cent occupancy… There’s constant pressure to work additional shifts, overtime, sick, injured, there isn’t enough time to spend properly with each patient. Care is reduced to medications because that’s often all there’s time for. And over time, this takes a terrible toll on morale. “
As evidence of the government’s plan, Hurley stated, “The Minister [of Health]… attended a Chamber of Commerce fair on privatization of healthcare services, but as a previous speaker mentioned, has had no time to meet with the representatives of the frontline workers who have views about privatization and the impact that would have in terms of devastating the existing service.”
Hurley pointed out that death rates in private clinics and private hospitals are higher, patient outcomes are less successful, and costs are higher when compared to public hospitals. Despite these statistics, Hurley noted, the Ford government seems intent on pushing towards increased privatization. He accused the government of “opening a market by commercializing hospital surgeries and other procedures… the degraded compensation for the workforce and the impossible workloads [are] not accidents, but deliberately planned events to create a backlog of surgeries and other procedures and open the door to privatization.”
OHC is holding similar online events across the province with local public health advocates in the hope that this will be the public wake-up call needed to stop the privatization of healthcare in Ontario.