At its core, health care must be public and well-funded to guarantee services to all. Yet, thanks to decades of underfunding and privatization, our public health systems in Ontario have been under tremendous strain – a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated. Under the leadership of Doug Ford, the province has used the pandemic as an opportunity to cut and privatize health care, to line the pockets of his corporate friends.
Privatizing health care has always been the plan
In February 2022, Ontario Minister of Health Christine Elliott announced the Progressive Conservatives’ plan to privatize public hospital services, opening the doors to for-profit clinic and hospitals. The Ontario Health Coalition has outlined that for-profit care delivers poorer-quality services, cuts corners, is under less regulatory oversight, and costs more. It also widens the gap in health equity, as patients who can pay out of pocket are able to get faster service.
While the Ford government has cited pandemic backlogs as the reason for its privatization plan, the administration had already proposed millions of dollars in cuts to Ontario’s health services even before the pandemic began. Health care advocates, including Council of Canadians chapters, had been sounding the alarm on a long list of cuts, including to nursing positions and hospital staff, services for lower-income families, mental health services, and ambulance services. In 2019, a leak revealed Ford’s plan to establish a “Super Agency” that dissolved regional health agencies and gave the Health Ministry the power to close, merge, or privatize local health services without notice. The move would open the door to the creation of mega-hospitals where services would be consolidated and privatized, while smaller and more rural hospitals would close.
And it’s all in the interests of private profit. According to the Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, over one thousand lobbyists registered to influence health care policies in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the second highest number only after economic development and trade. PressProgress reviewed many of these entries and revealed that private companies have been lobbying the Ontario government to “privatize or outsource” health services. For example, as reported by PressProgress, the move to license “independent health facilities,” which according to the Ontario Health Coalition are 97% for-profit companies, followed the lobbying of Herzig Eye Institute, one of the most prominent for-profit surgery companies.
Unfortunately, the recent privatization attempts under Ford are déjà vu for many defenders of public health in Ontario. Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal also made cuts to hospitals, contracted out surgeries and tests to private clinics, limited health workers’ wage increases, and closed local public hospitals in favour of P3 mega-hospitals. Following the neoliberal playbook, Ontario governments in the last 20 years repeatedly attacked public health care with cuts and inadequate funding, let the quality of care decline, and attempted to privatize these services in the name of efficiency. As a result, our health care system was deeply unprepared for any crisis – Ontario entered the pandemic with the lowest rate of hospital beds per 1,000 people in the OECD, according to the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario.
The crisis in long-term care has been decades in the making
Over 4,500 residents in Ontario’s long-term care homes died due to COVID-19. In fact, families and staff have been sounding the alarm long before the pandemic hit about the poor care conditions and staffing shortage in long-term care homes due to decades of cuts, privatization, and deregulations.
The neglect and privatization of long-term care were a result of consecutive governments limiting the public role in long-term care and relaxing regulations and public oversight. These moves created ideal conditions for corporations like Revera, Chartwell, Extendicare, and Sienna to begin making a profit out of caring for seniors. In the decade before the pandemic, these for-profit corporations diverted nearly $4 billion in public funds away from care for residents towards their own bottom line, according to the Canadian Centre for Tax Fairness. The results were more transfers to hospitals, more deaths, and more bed ulcers in for-profit homes even before the pandemic, and almost doubled rates of COVID-19 outbreaks and 178 per cent higher rates of resident deaths during the pandemic compared to non-profit or municipally-owned homes.
Presiding over this humanitarian crisis, Doug Ford and his ministers brought none of the culprits to justice. In fact, they continued to grant 30-year licenses to for-profit operators, despite their poor record of handling the pandemic, and allocated over 10,000 more long-term care beds to them. The Conservatives also rushed through Bill 37 – which rewrote the rules to allow for more for-profit ownership, without fixing the systemic issues laid bare by the pandemic – and Bill 175, which opened up home care to privatization. COVID-19 has made it clear that profit does not belong in seniors’ care; Doug Ford and the PCs, however, doubled down on the opposite.
Ford’s pandemic response was guided by business interests
As the pandemic put thousands of lives in danger, especially in the most vulnerable communities, we relied on our government to make decisions in our best interests. However, analyses have suggested that the Ford government made many major pandemic-related decisions based on the interests of lobbyists and donors to his party. For example, during the peak of several COVID waves, lockdown measures excluded big box stores, construction companies, the film industry, the logistics and distribution sector, and others, responding to lobbying efforts from these sectors, according to the Star.
Workers, on the other hand, were never part of the PCs’ consideration. Despite public health professionals and advocates calling for paid sick days as one of the key measures for responding to the pandemic, Ford’s government repeatedly voted against it and then ultimately brought forward a measly three temporary paid sick days. The lack of paid sick days puts more strain on health care workers and other essential workers during the pandemic and disproportionately affects lower-income workers. Meanwhile, large corporations continued to rake in record profits during the pandemic while lobbying against paid sick day legislation across Canada.
Ford also acted in the interests of his donors and lobbyists when it came to running vaccine clinics and COVID testing. A few days after board members of FH Health made the maximum allowed donation to the PC party, the company was awarded the contract to run vaccine clinics across the province. Similarly, Ford contracted several private companies to do COVID testing, such as Canadian Health Labs and Switch Health, both of which have been lobbying the provincial government to privatize or outsource these services. At the same time, the Ford government removed all public testing options by the end of 2021, forcing Ontarians to pay out of pocket for the test. The Ontario Health Coalition has raised issues of access, equity, quality, cost, and safety related to this move.
Ontarians rely on our government to invest in critical public services like health care, education, mental health, and seniors care to live a life with dignity. However, subsequent governments have been putting profits for corporations before public health and wellbeing, by cutting and privatizing essential health care services. Specifically, the last four years have seen Ford and his government putting the most vulnerable at risk of COVID, neglect, or lack of access to essential care.
It’s time we hold these politicians accountable. On June 2, stand up for the care all Ontarians deserve and vote for public, expanded, well-funded health care.