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Hundreds of workers protesting nine years of cuts to Ontario's health-care budget gathered at Queen's Park yesterday.
The rally, organized by the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Ontario Common Front, coincides with the standing committee on finance and economic affairs' pre-budget consultation hearing in Toronto on Feb. 1.
Natalie Mehra, OHC executive director, says the government's relentless implementation of cutbacks mobilized health care and worker advocates in Ontario to take a different approach to protests.
"We've been holding protests to greet the pre-budget hearings all across Ontario. Although it's unusual to protest hearings, we have been asking them to stop the cuts for years," Mehra says.
"We need to build enough public pressure that they actually stop the cuts."
The pre-budget hearing is the sixth and final one being held by the standing committee on finance and economic affairs. It is set to resume for a second day today.
The committee's first hearing occurred in Hamilton on January 18.
Funding cuts to Ontario's health services are a result of Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government pledge to balance the budget by the end of the next fiscal year.
Health-care advocacy groups and unions -- both inside and outside the health sector -- unanimously agree the budget restraints and policies aimed at expanding the privatization of services are impacting directly on the quality of care patients receive.
Changes ushered in last year as a result of austerity measures include:
Real dollar cuts to overall health-care funding with only a 1.3 per cent budget increase allocated. This failed to match inflation and population growth.
No increase in funding for public hospitals.
At least 625 nurses positions cut across the province.
A 6.9 per cent reduction in physician fees.
Mehra, supported by representatives from various unions across Ontario, recounted an array of cuts to public services at the rally.
"Ontario funds all public services at the lowest rate per person of any province in Canada and as a result Ontario funds all hospitals at the lowest rate of any province in Canada.
"Ontario now has the fewest hospital beds left per person of any province in Canada. It's not just by national measures. For the entire OECD, that's all developed nations of the world, Ontario is third from the bottom in the number of hospital beds left, followed only by Chile and Mexico," Mehra says.
Drastic cuts to nursing staff -- with the most recent layoffs involving 169 registered nurse positions at Windsor Regional Hospital announced January 18 -- means Ontario also has the fewest nursing hours per patient of all Canada's provinces, she says.
"We have devastated health professional services like rehabilitation therapy, we have privatized and contracted out vital patient-care services like cleaning and food services to the detriment of patients."
If the health-care cuts continue, the OHC and its partner organizations are planning to hold a province-wide referendum asking Ontarians whether they support them.
"We'll be organizing voting stations in communities across the province -- corner stores, drug stores and local businesses that are supportive of keeping local hospital services," Mehra says.
Both the NDP and Conservative parties have criticized the austerity measures implemented by the Liberals, raising concerns over declining patient-care quality, longer patient wait times and poor physician compensation levels.
On the front lines
Sandy Lunney-McDonald works at Lakeridge Health Bowmanville hospital.
The CUPE member has been a food service worker for 32 years and was among the hundreds protesting the austerity measures to health-care services in Ontario at yesterday's rally.
Nurses are stretched thin and patients are suffering as a result, Lunney-McDonald tells rabble.
"I'm on the floor with the patients serving them. It's really hard to get nurses because they've got between eight and 10 patients per nurse.
"You've got patients that need to be fed and there's no one there to feed them."
"We can try and set them up, but that's all we can do," she says.
Patients unable to feed themselves sometimes miss out on eating when nurses are too busy to feed them, Lunney-McDonald says.
Lakeridge Health Bowmanville worker Sandy Lunney-McDonald says patients are suffering because of budget-imposed staff cutbacks at hospitals.
The effects of the funding restraints had become increasingly obvious in the past few years at all hospitals, Lunney-McDonald says.
"Patients are kicked out before they are actually better and then you do see them come back in a few days with infections. I've had family members been discharged and sent home when they're not well enough."
It is essential the budget restraints be reversed, she says.
"They've really got too many cutbacks and too much privatization, it's just not fair.
"If you're ill, they've got to put you in the hospital, they just can't keep cutting beds."
Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.