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Fighting privatization & austerity in Ontario healthcare

Posted: March 1, 2022

(February 27, 2022)

By: Janna Klostermann, The Leveller

A 22-year old woman seeking diagnostic testing at an Ottawa clinic couldn’t afford the $500 fee, so instead declined the tests.

A man on a wait list for surgery was told he could have the “opportunity” if he wanted to pay to go to Montreal and “jump the line.” Instead, and without the money to spare, he “just accepted the fact that he will more than likely die waiting for the surgery.”

These were stories shared by Melissa Coenraad, a laboratory technician and labour leader, to raise alarms about the dangers of privatization at an Ottawa Health Coalition press conference.

Held on Wednesday February 23, the press conference pointed to the Ford government’s unprecedented plans to privatize health care services in Ontario over the next decade, while announcing the coalition’s ‘fight back’ campaign. The campaign aims to respond to proposed changes and budget cuts, starting with an upcoming anti-privatization and austerity summit to be held Monday March 21.

Illustration: Crystal Yung

Crisis in Ontario

The press conference also explored how public sector austerity has resulted in care gaps — evident in long wait lists, backlogs, staffing shortages, and unmet care needs. While it may seem at first glance that we need private care to fill these care gaps, the speakers argued private care actually creates more care gaps. This sets up a vicious cycle where austerity leads to privatization, which further degrades care. This only justifies more austerity for a “failing” public system and an increased role for more “efficient” private options.

Patients who can’t pay or who have complex cases will have to wait it out on even longer wait lists in depleted public systems.

With the rise of neoliberalism and austerity measures, the number of hospital beds in Canada per 1,000 people has declined to 2.5 from 6.9 in 1976. While these processes aren’t restricted to Ontario, the Conservatives aim to accelerate them in the province. (The Ford government’s love of austerity and neoliberalism is something we’ve covered before at The Leveller.)

Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, emphasized that Ontario’s health care system is in crisis with the “fewest staff and fewest beds” and with the lowest level of funding in western world. The province is leading the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a grouping of 38 high-income nations that could be considered Canada’s peers) “in terms of deaths of residents in long-term care,” he added.

Rachel Muir, a registered nurse at the Ottawa hospital and the Ontario Nurses Association bargaining unit president for that hospital, stated Ontario’s health care system is “on the brink of collapse” and that the Ontario “government has no viable plan to restore our health care system.”

She mentioned that Ontario is now “22,000 nurses short to bring us up to the national average.”

Privatization takes many forms

“Regrettably, this government is very comfortable with for-profit care,” Hurley said.

Hurley described plans to expand for-profit care, to extend the contracts of for-profit operators, and to turn to private hospitals and clinics to address backlogs.

Coenraad said that it’s been a slow privatization of health care, “one process at a time, one treatment at a time.”

To give an example, she mentioned how laboratory testing has been moved from registered and regulated laboratories — that adhere to standards to ensure safety, accuracy, and quality control markers — to unregulated private clinics or “hubs” that rely on unlicensed staff, with no oversight or standards. She shared that at one private clinic, when 40 samples failed quality control markers, a lab tech was told that it was too expensive and would cut into their profit to re-run the tests.

Ed Cashman of the Ottawa Health Coalition also shared local examples of privatization being rolled out across the city, including new companies coming into the Ottawa area, for-profit long-term care facilities being awarded contracts, and home care being at risk of being privatized.

Illustration: Crystal Yung

Privatization is a real problem

Taken together, the speakers noted that having profit margins as a primary goal is a problem. It can lead to higher death rates and higher rates of inadequate care, neglect, dehydration or lack of PPE in private settings. All of this was evident in the 2020 Military report on private long-term residential care facilities.

Privatization can mean less access, more user fees, and longer wait times. Not everyone can pay to meet their care needs or to get something done sooner.

More than that, Hurley noted part of the reason why it is dangerous to privatize is that there are “only so many doctors, nurses, and other vital health care staff.” These staff would be pulled out of public facilities to work in private ones.

Staffing a private system means diverting money to corporate profits that could be used to treat people. It not only competes with the public system, but would contribute to depleting it.

As Muir and Coenraad noted, this is also worth raising alarms about because private clinics are more likely to only support easier and cheaper cases that increase their potential for profit. This would leave public hospitals to handle complex cases with fewer staff. Patients who can’t pay or who have complex cases will have to wait it out on even longer wait lists in depleted public systems.

“Private healthcare is for profit and is for greed,” Muir said, noting that it “weakens our healthcare system even further.”

What now?

As part of a provincial effort to fight back against privatization, the Ottawa Health Coalition event spoke to the need to build back and expand public health care.

With health care shortages, long waitlists, and a depleted workforce — and with less than 100 days before the next election — each speaker emphasized that it’s time to take a stand.

Coenraad said, “We need to stop privatization in our healthcare now.”

“Public healthcare is a right and not a privilege,” Muir said.

“The whole point of a healthcare system is to treat people,” Hurley explained. He shared past examples of defeating initiatives to privatize health care and underscored the importance of defending the public system now and in the future.  He also emphasized that public Ottawa hospitals not only have the capacity to meet the backlogs, but can’t afford not to.

To build on this momentum, Cashman announced that all are welcome to get involved with the Ottawa Health Coalition, and to attend the Ottawa Health Coalition’s major public meeting to challenge privatization and austerity, which is scheduled to be held on Zoom at 7pm Monday March 21.

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