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Ontario boosts hospital, mental health and pediatric funding in budget

A paramedic tends to a patient in a hallway at the Humber River Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Ontario is boosting funding for hospitals, pediatric care, mental health and home care as part of its efforts to reform health care in the province.

The provincial budget released Thursday detailed an $850 million increase in funding to hospitals – a four per cent boost in base funding – plus $200 million to address health-care staffing shortages across the entire system.

"The pandemic, we're through that, now it's the time to pivot to make sure we have investments, long-term sustainable investments, in our health-care system," said Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy.

The province plans to invest more than $15 billion in new funding on health care over the next three years, he said.

"It’s not just about acute care, it's also about home and community care," Bethlenfalvy said. 

"I think it’s fundamentally important that we transition to caring for people. People want to be cared for at home or in the community at lot more."

The province said it will accelerate $1-billion it pledged in the last budget for home care over three years. Home Care Ontario had been asking the province to release more of that money, saying only $120 million had been rolled out in the first year. 

Ontario will send out $569 million for home care in the 2023-24 fiscal year. Some $300 million of that will be spent on "contract rate increases to stabilize the home and community care workforce," Bethlenfalvy said. 

The province has also designated all of the $4.4 billion contained in the soon-to-be-signed health-care deal with the federal government.

The budget says about $200 million of that federal cash will be spent on pediatric care, which includes money to address surgical and diagnostic backlogs.

There are nearly 12,000 children awaiting surgery across the province. The overall surgical backlog sits around 200,000 procedures. 

Bethlenfalvy said the government has also set aside more money to work with front-line health-care workers to identify other needs.

The province is in the midst of an ambitious plan to reform the health-care system. 

It is farming out some publicly-funded surgeries from hospitals to clinics, particularly for cataract operations and hip and knee replacements, as it tries to clear the massive surgical backlog. 

The budget said Ontario will spend $72 million this year on those clinics, some of which are private, for-profit centres.

The province's health system has been under significant pressure. 

Last year saw rolling emergency department closures, sometimes for hours, days or weeks at a time. Hospitals said the closures were largely due to a severe nursing shortage. There are also significant shortages of health-care workers in long-term care and home care, particularly nurses and personal support workers.

In the fall, the four pediatric hospitals across the province became overwhelmed by sick children in emergency rooms and intensive care units due to a surge in respiratory viruses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

The province said the $200 million it plans to spend to address the health-care worker shortage includes money for some 6,000 students to train in hospitals, as well as funding for more than 3,000 internationally educated nurses to become accredited in the province.

Ontario also plans to hire up to 200 "hospital preceptors" to provide mentorship and training, plus $15 million to retain 100 veteran nurses in the workforce and $4.3 million to help at least 50 internationally trained doctors get licensed in the province. 

The government is also investing a total of $80 million over three years to expand nursing education in universities and colleges, a move it says will add 8,000 additional nurses by 2028.

It's also adding 100 spots in medical schools in 2023 and 154 spots for medical residents to train in 2024.

The government plans to expand pharmacists' scope of practice by allowing them to prescribe medications for more common ailments, such as acne, canker sores and yeast infections. 

The province also said it will step up its efforts to help the one million Ontarians who deal with mental health or addictions episodes each year with a $425 million funding boost over three years.

That money will be used for community-led programs and to "make a broad range of addictions services available across Ontario that are easy to access," the budget said.

There will also be more money for children and youth living with eating disorders.

The province is also committing $202 million annually to address homelessness and Indigenous supportive housing. 

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario applauded the province's mental health and homelessness funding.

"The Ontario government answered AMO’s call for provincial leadership on homelessness with two substantial investments," said the association's president, Colin Best.

"These substantial investments are important examples of provincial-municipal and community collaboration to address Ontario’s homelessness crisis."

Alex Munter, the CEO of CHEO, a pediatric hospital and research facility in Ottawa, was buoyed by the province's pledge in the budget that "every child in Ontario should be able to get the care they need, when they need it."

"This recognizes that too many kids wait too long for care right now in the province of Ontario," he said. 

Children's hospitals and health organizations had asked the province for $371 million each year for the next four years to fix the system.

"What we hear in this budget is a recognition that there's a problem, number one, and a commitment to work with us to implement solutions," Munter said. 

"We have a plan and we are ready to go tomorrow morning."

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the budget was a "failure" for Ontarians as the province shifts more delivery of public health-care dollars into private hands.

"For you, Ontarians, that means longer wait times, that means more ER closures, that means more nurses out of the sector," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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