Health care workers rallied in front of Thunder Bay’s regional hospital Tuesday, warning provincial moves to allow more private procedures could worsen staff shortages.
THUNDER BAY — Health care workers from five Ontario unions came together Tuesday to demonstrate strong opposition to new provincial legislation expanding the role of private clinics in Ontario’s health system.
Around 75 people rallied at entrances to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, and later delivered a petition to hospital leadership urging CEO Rhonda Crocker Ellacott to join them in publicly opposing Bill 60.
The petition was signed by over 1,300 hospital staff members, amounting to well over 60 per cent of unionized workers there, said campaign organizers.
Those who signed included nurses, personal support workers, housekeepers, lab technologists, clerical staff and others.
Also known as the Your Health Act, the bill allows more private clinics to offer publicly-funded procedures like cataract surgeries and hip and knee replacements.
On Tuesday, health workers and their union leaders called the law a step toward further privatization of the province’s health system, and warned it could worsen already-dire staffing shortages in public hospitals.
Provincial OPSEU president JP Hornick, who attended the rally, said more privatization will only weaken the system.
“It actually does nothing around wait times,” Hornick said. “What it does is actually download the more complex procedures into the public system while allowing the private clinics to skim the cream — the easy procedures they can make money on.”
“What we’re looking at is a classic tactic for a conservative government to come in, strip a public system, claim it’s in crisis, and then move it out into a private one that benefits only a few people. It literally sucks money out of people’s pockets and into private corporations — and we saw what happened there with long-term care.”
A “people’s referendum” campaign highlighted similar concerns over the bill earlier this year.
The Ford government has defended the legislation as a way to reduce long wait lists, and promised patients at private clinics will not have to pay out of pocket.
Bill 60 includes a clause stating doctors at private clinics shall not turn patients away for choosing to pay with their OHIP card.
Thunder Bay–Atikokan MPP Kevin Holland was travelling and unavailable for interview Tuesday, but provided a statement reiterating that commitment.
“Premier Ford and our government have been clear, Ontarians will always access healthcare with their OHIP card, not their credit card,” he stated.
Opponents have argued that in practice, however, private clinics have a track record of “up-charging” patients by recommending more expensive services not covered by public insurance.
There were already over 800 private clinics operating in Ontario before the bill’s passage, with most offering diagnostic imaging and testing.
Despite the Ford government’s firm majority at Queen’s Park, Hornick said the campaign’s ultimate goal remains to force it to back down and repeal the bill in the face of public pressure.
“What we see with this government over and over again is when Ontarians stand up, they back down.”
Susan Rubenick, a therapeutic recreationist with St. Joseph’s Care Group and a service representative with Unifor Local 229, said positions at for-profit clinics will be attractive to workers, predicting that will worsen staff shortages.
“We’re fearful we’re going to lose our nurses, our rehab assistants, our rec therapists to private clinics, private hospitals,” she said. “That’s going to make our critical staffing shortages we already have even worse.”
Unifor Local 229 president Kari Jefford agreed.
“Who’s not going to want to work a six- or seven-hour day for more money at first, without the stress, without the shift work?” she asked. “It will just start to unravel.”
Holland says Bill 60 requires clinics to address those concerns.
“Community and surgical diagnostic centres will be required to submit a detailed staffing model when applying for a license as well as how it consulted with health system partners, including public hospitals, in the development of its application,” he stated.
He also claimed some local residents are already seeing the benefits of the new approach.
“I have had several constituents reach out to me and thank our government as they have been able to have their knee, hip, and eye surgeries 18 months sooner,” he said.
If Crocker Ellacott were to agree to the petition’s demand and oppose Bill 60, it would put her out of step with the Ontario Hospital Association, which supported the legislation, saying it will help reduce wait times.
The Ontario Medical Association, representing the province’s doctors, also weighed in to support the legislation.
Tuesday’s rally was jointly organized by the Ontario Nurses’ Association, Unifor, OPSEU, CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, and SEIU Healthcare.