Canada's Ontario to expand use of private healthcare providers

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Ismail Shakil

TORONTO (Reuters) -Canada's most populous province, Ontario, plans to significantly expand its use of private providers to perform public health services, the premier said on Monday, in a bid to deal with backlogs and delays in a healthcare system strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

Premier Doug Ford announced the planned expansion on Monday, saying: "The status quo is no longer acceptable. ... This is the best way to go to take the burden off the backs of the hospitals."

The announcement comes as Ontario and other Canadian provinces struggle to provide healthcare as the strain on hospitals and wait lists for non-urgent procedures - which lengthened during the pandemic - stay long.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston told Global News on Sunday that Canada’s healthcare system is "on the ropes."

Canada's publicly-funded healthcare system has in the past been seen by some as a model system. But critics say years of underinvestment and the strain from the COVID-19 pandemic have stretched it to a breaking point.

Asked about Ontario's plan Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would "continue to watch" that the Canada Health Act is respected. Its tenets include public administration, universality and accessibility of health care.

Ford and his ministers have insisted the province's health insurance program will continue to cover healthcare.

But critics and public health advocates have argued expanding the use of private providers is a step towards privatizing the public health system and risks cannibalizing a healthcare workforce already facing a shortage. Health sector vacancy rates are the highest they have been in years.

The Ford government has said it has no plans to privatize the healthcare system.

'POTENTIALLY FATAL'

Ontario plans to add 14,000 cataract surgeries a year, about 25% of the current wait list, and invest C$18 million ($13.4 million) in existing private centres to fund medical imaging and certain surgeries.

The government also plans to introduce legislation early this year to expand the provision of certain services and surgeries in these clinics.

"We're rerouting … the easier surgeries that are taking up 50% of the capacity at the hospitals and causing people to wait for the serious surgeries as well," Ford said Monday.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones said patients could complain to the province if they felt they were not offered publicly covered services at the private clinics.

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition advocacy group, said she was worried this opened the door to further privatization and that it was "laughable" to suggest it would not take health workers from the understaffed public system.

"This is potentially fatal to the public health system in our province and in our country, and we're going to fight it in every possible way," she said.

($1 = 1.3394 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Deepa Babington)