If you’ve used the healthcare system recently, you probably know there are big problems. Underfunding, long an issue in Ontario, has gotten worse under Doug Ford’s Conservative government, and he has pushed privatization of many health services, diverting money and staff away from the public system and towards private businesses.
The question now is whether the healthcare system as we know it — or as we once knew it — can be saved.
Another signature Ford government scheme project backfired spectacularly last year: giving away large sections of the Greenbelt to real estate speculators and developers. The combo of broad public opposition, investigative journalism by The Narwhal, Toronto Star and auditor general reports exposing scandalous and embarrassing dealings, and divisions within the conservative caucus caused Ford to abandon most of his plan.
Could his hand similarly be forced on health care? What would it take?
Ontario Health Coalition gears up
“They’re a tough nut to crack. There’s no question,” says Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, in a phone interview with The Grind. “They’re trying to privatize virtually every subsector of health care that they can, from hospitals to long-term care for the next 30 years to the remaining public parts of home care, to primary care … [and] vaccines and COVID testing. … Despite all the rhetoric from Doug Ford saying you’ll never pay with your credit card, every piece of this privatization is resulting in more costs for patients.”
Mehra has been taking on Liberal and Conservative provincial governments for 27 years to keep health care public and adequately funded. And it has more or less worked, like defeating the provincial Liberal’s plan to allow private hospitals when they were last in power. But, she says, the current government has so far been intransigent and “very difficult to move.”
To get the government to shift course, Mehra says “it’s going to take a mass, mass public movement and tons of public pressure.”
The Ontario Health Coalition has a tiny staff team of three, and relies on volunteers as well as organizational members such as churches and seniors groups to run 50 local chapters across the province. They have a goal of reaching two million people in person-to-person outreach, which includes door-knocking and distributing leaflets.
Volunteers are welcome to get involved in that effort, says Mehra. Other volunteer tasks include speaking to community groups, distributing surveys to seniors to gather stories about being billed extra at private clinics (like for cataract surgeries) for a report, making memes and other online shareables, organizing press conferences and rallies, and more.
These efforts “will lead to a mass protest outside the [provincial] legislature in May,” says Mehra.
Health workers and unions
This winter, hospital workers are negotiating new contracts with the Ontario Hospitals Association (OHA). Many hospital workers, briefly hailed as heroes in the early pandemic, have been leaving their jobs in recent years — a combination of being overworked and underpaid.
Forty-one per cent of Ontario’s hospitals workers now dread going into work, according to a recent survey conducted by Nanos Research on behalf of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE). OCHU/CUPE is one of three unions bargaining for new contracts, along with Unifor and the SEIU Healthcare.
“You’ve got a system which is very, very underfunded, very under-resourced, and has a huge backlog of people waiting for treatment,” OCHU/CUPE President Michael Hurley tells The Grind by phone. “And what we’re really fighting over here with the government [in contract negotiations] is how to improve care, how to improve access, how to ensure that people get quality care. We believe that they’re running the system into the ground deliberately. And then they point to its growing waiting lists and say, ‘well, we have no choice now, but we’re going to have to bring in the private sector to do surgeries, even though we know those surgeries will be more expensive and will ultimately result in longer waiting lists.’ We say that’s no solution. The solution is actually to invest more in the public system.”
Hurley is concerned that the OHA is intent on concession bargaining, meaning trying to get the workers to take worse contracts than before, and potentially worse working conditions.
Unlike most other workers, “We don’t have the legal right to strike,” says Hurley. Contract disputes are frequently resolved through arbitration, and the arbitrator is often not someone the union trusts.
Despite the legal restrictions, there is a history of strikes among health care workers in Canada and abroad. British nurses, for the first time in over 100 years, went on strike in 2022 and 2023 over similar concerns of underfunding. They maintained a baseline of service in hospitals, including for chemotherapy, intensive care and other units, but some non-urgent care was affected, creating substantial pressure on the government.
“I think they set an example for others across the world,” says Hurley. “We certainly were watching and have a lot of respect for what they have been able to accomplish in terms of their political action.”
But, he adds, “I’m not saying that that’s where we will end up — that’s not a foregone conclusion at all.”
This article appeared in the 2024 Feb/Mar issue.