An image of a nurse adjusting their scrub cap
An image of a nurse adjusting their scrub cap. Credit: SJ Objio / Unsplash Credit: SJ Objio / Unsplash

It baffles me the way some political developments turn into scandals while other clearly scandalous developments turn out to be political nothing-burgers.

Take, for instance, dramatic new numbers showing that privatized health care is more expensive than public health care — not just by a little bit, but wildly more expensive.

This has all the makings of a scandal, particularly in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford has been barrelling forward with plans to significantly increase health care privatization — plans he never revealed before his re-election last year.

There’s fresh evidence why these plans are terrible: Quebec government data, released in April, show that surgeries at private clinics consistently cost the government more, often more than twice as much.

And a May 12 CBC report revealed that our public hospitals, increasingly forced to rely on nurses supplied by private agencies, are paying those agencies up to eight times the going rate.

Let’s just consider the folly of the nursing situation. Imagine that there are two nurses.

Nurse One, employed in the emergency department at Toronto General Hospital, earns only $37.10 an hour, despite working under often gruelling conditions. (This is the actual median wage for registered nurses at hospitals in Toronto’s University Health Network.)

The Ford government has blocked Nurse One from winning a higher wage, by capping nurses’ wage hikes at one per cent a year since 2019, even as inflation soared above seven per cent.

One might conclude the Ford government is simply determined to keep nursing costs low. But that’s not really the case. Which brings us to Nurse Two.

This second nurse became so disheartened by Ford’s low pay and dismissive treatment that he quit his hospital job and now works for a private nursing agency at roughly double the pay.

Lots of other nurses have followed his path, leaving our hospitals seriously short-staffed and obliged to hire nurses from private agencies. Taking full advantage of the hospitals’ desperation, the agencies jack up the price. At crunch times, their rates go as high as $300 an hour — costing the hospital (ultimately, the government) about eight times what it pays Nurse One for the same work.

Most of this excess pay ends up in the hands of the private agencies, which, as middlemen, are scooping up tens of millions of dollars of public money.

This reckless use of public money could be avoided if the government simply paid Nurse One a reasonable wage. Ford’s refusal to do this suggests he has an agenda that has nothing to do with good governance.

Rather, he seems motivated to crush the nurses, along with all other public sector workers struggling to catch up after three years of being held to a 1 per cent wage cap. Although the cap was struck down by the courts last fall, the Ford government is appealing that decision and fighting to maintain the cap.

In addition to trouncing public sector unions, Ford appears keen to undermine public health care, thereby smoothing the way for more privatization. Certainly, he seems fixated on privatization and promoting private business interests.

He doesn’t seem to understand that, as premier, his job is to protect the public, which includes shielding our valued public programs from pillaging by private businesses, whose only concern is making a buck.

Ford and his ministers, steeped in their stag-and-doe ways, seem unaware that they are elected to be guardians of the public interest (even writing that, I realize how ridiculous it sounds, in their case).

In the legislature, Health Minister Sylvia Jones appears unable to coherently defend health care privatization, lapsing into corporate pep-talk that “Innovation is not a bad word.”

Of course, innovation isn’t bad. Indeed, it’s good. What’s bad is the way Jones and the rest of the Ford government use “innovation” as a cover for crushing workers and channelling public funds to private interests.

That’s not innovation. It’s a betrayal of their role as public guardians. And, in any reasonable political universe, that would be a scandal.

A version of this column first appeared in the Toronto Star.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...