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Ford government cuts will hurt a health system already in crisis

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Michael Hurley. Image: CUPE. Used with permission.

Across Canada, many of our provincial leaders seem determined to decimate the public education and health-care systems in their provinces, particularly if they are Progressive Conservatives. The workers on the frontlines keep warning them that this will hurt people but they are heedlessly and recklessly pursuing their agendas. In reponse, the Activist Toolkit has been reaching out to union leaders to find out what is going on, how they intend to fight back, and what we can do to support them. Last week, I published an interview with the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Association, Harvey Bischof, which highlighted what educators are seeing and doing. This week I interviewed Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and first vice-president of CUPE Ontario, about the crisis Progressive Conservatives are heightening in health care. Next week we will move to Alberta, to continue highlighting the work of unions across the country standing up against these cruel cuts.

Activist Toolkit: What is happening in Ontario under the current government? 

Michael Hurley: In a nutshell, the Ford government is planning to cut $8 billion out of the health-care system over the next five years. Ontario's health-care system is already understaffed and running at capacity. Ontario spends the least on its public hospitals of any province in Canada and has the fewest beds to population of any province. 

AT: What will the cuts mean? How is the province proposing to cut wait times and meet need?

MH: The premier said in July that there were a thousand patients in hallways in Ontario hospitals. The hospitals are operating at 100 per cent capacity, which may sound efficient but it is actually inefficient. If you operate at that level, the rate of medical error and the rate of hospital-acquired infection goes up and so the re-admission rates go up. This means some people come back because they were sent home when they were actually too sick to go home but the hospital staff and administration had to clear the bed to make space for a patient whose need was more acute. This is actually the better-case scenario, because others suffer because their families do not have the resources to care for someone who is so sick or they die.  

Despite PC announcements for new long-term care beds they say will alleviate hallway health care, an additional 1,087 Ontarians are on the waiting list for a bed. That's an increase of 3.2 per cent in the last year. Wait times in emergency rooms have increased 13.2 per cent in the first year of the Conservative government.

The PCs are making matters worse by cutting hospital capacity while using a new round of health system restructuring to distract Ontarians from the lack of hospital beds and care. Read our most recent report for more useful data and analysis about this crisis.

AT:  What are some of the things you have been hearing from frontline workers?

MH: We are seeing a crisis among many caregivers. We are health-care providers because we care and we want to see our patients get better. We have been doing as much as we can with not enough resources for too long. When we hear more cuts are coming, we feel it is putting us and patients in danger and we are going to stand up. 

All health-care staff are trying to paper over the holes in staffing levels and are working longer hours and trying to do as much as they humanly can, but, in 2018, this industry had a higher injury rate than any other industry in Canada, including manufacturing. These statistics are only going to get worse if we are consistently asked to do more with less, and we will, undoubtedly and despite our best efforts, have more patients who suffer. Personal support workers and long-term care staff have been regularly working overtime, some of which is not even factored into their pay, and now many nurses in hospitals are reporting the same thing.

When we are constantly working at this rate, constantly making due with insufficient support, we see more anxiety, burnout and depression among staff. 

AT: What are some patient stories you have heard?

MH: In 2015, we published a report called Pushed Out of Northern Hospitals, Abandoned at Home: After Twenty Years of Budget Cuts, Ontario's Health System is Failing Patients. We chronicled the anecdotal experiences of hundreds of patients from over 30 Ontario communities, including many in northern Ontario, who called a patient hotline.

For nearly two decades, through 2015, Ontario's provincial government has aggressively downsized hospitals, cutting 19,000 beds and reducing access to in-hospital restorative care and rehabilitation therapies, under the guise of shifting care from hospitals to outpatient services in the community.

In 2015 hotline callers were blunt: this transformation has amounted to a personal tragedy for their families, with loss of life, mobility, and independence all chronicled due to lack of access to acute hospital care.

We know that families and caregivers need support, we know that we need more beds, we know that people are suffering, so why are we doubling down on cuts?

Now people continue to call us, telling us about being sent home when they were too ill, someone they love dying or worsening while waiting for care, or about receiving inadequate care. It is heartbreaking to hear these stories and know they will get worse because the government is going in the wrong direction.

Caregivers have reported that patients have been released, still drugged up and barely able to get out of bed, to their families. There is no way to ensure that the family can care for a patient who needs to be lifted. As our population ages, too often patients are released to a spouse who is also elderly. This spouse is sometimes not physically able to provide the care the patient needs. We have had reports of elderly people who are released to spouses who are blind and have mobility issues. Now this person must be a caregiver and they need support which they do not have and cannot afford.

AT: How can we help? How do we get involved?

MH: People across this province have stories. If anyone has a personal situation they want to disclose they can email me here: admin[at]ochu.on.ca. Right now we need the members of provincial parliament to listen to us. We need health-care changes which make sense for patients. Therefore we are scheduling days of action and rallying across the province. In November we start in Chatham, Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto and Ottawa. We are working with local branches of the Ontario Health Coalition so please contact them for more information. 

We also encourage you to share your experience with your MPP. Send us what they say at admin[at]ochu.on.ca and we can work with you to hold them accountable.

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image: CUPE. Used with permission.

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